There’s no one way to describe the scent of a beached, rotting whale. See, it really depends on time and space: So long as you’re more than 20 feet away, you don’t smell a thing. But if you’re downwind, the sour stench will just about bowl you over. Its bite sits heavily instead of sharply in your throat. If a zombie wore week-old gym socks, this is what it would smell like.
Then consider the time of death. Whales are full of bacteria, just like us, so when they wash up dead, their body cavities play host to microbial anarchy. As the whale lies there on the beach in the sun, the bacteria multiply. Lots of different kinds of bacteria, spreading and eating up nutrients and giving off gas—which builds up, bloating the body to the point that it’s dangerous to deflate.
Which is why on a beach 13 miles north of San Francisco, a dozen scientists are carefully prodding a 58-foot female fin whale laid out on her back. “You’ll usually see the stomach swell quite big, almost like if you have a stomach that’s too full,” Barbie Halaska tells me—standing more than 20 feet from the whale, of course. She’s coordinator for strandings at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, and this is her necropsy (that’d be an autopsy for a non-human being). Wearing a teal hat and orange waders and elbow-length gloves, she walks around the whale, poking at it.
When you cut through the blubber layers, she adds, you start to see the muscle tense under the pressure of gas. “So you just poke little holes and you go along to let the gas escape.” It hisses like an inflatable mattress full of death.
Halaska and a dozen other scientists from the MMC and the California Academy of Sciences aren’t here to learn whale anatomy. They’re here to understand what happened to this bleached-white whale, which shows no outward signs of trauma, other than the typical nicks and scratches that come with being a massive animal swimming through the sea. Maybe the whale got tangled up in fishing nets and drowned. Or a ship struck it and the animal had manifested all its damage internally. Or disease had felled the whale.
Whatever the cause, its appearance builds on a bad omen: This is the third reported stranding in the Bay Area in a week. The average here for an entire year is five to seven. So what’s going on?
What these folks know for sure is that this particular whale is in an “advanced” state of decay. Someone reported it stranded on Duxbury Reef, near the town of Bolinas, three days before, and it died who knows how long before that. “Every time you go into a whale,” Halaska tells me before turning and heading back to her subject, “you go into it with an open mind.”
The scientists, armed with foot-long knives that look like miniature pirate swords, slice through blubber, peeling the flesh off in sheets. (Please be advised that you’re coming up on a photo of this scene, which contains gore.) At this stage of decay, it’s easier to slice than if it were fresh, like cutting through a grape. A blond gentlemen in a backwards cap uses a meat hook to drag chunks of blubber into a tide pool, tossing them with a schlop when the stuff hits rock and a splash when it hits standing water. Rivers of whale blood make their way through the pools and into the sea. All the while, a gang of seagulls inches closer, eventually getting the courage to snag a piece of meat. They fight over it at first, but then seem to lose interest. Again, advanced state of decay.
Halaska comes back to my safe aromatic distance from the whale and invites me to get a real whiff. She leads me along the animal’s split-open abdomen.
“So this first layer that you’re probably smelling is most likely blubber,” she says, “maybe a little bit of muscle. You can kind of smell the iron a little bit.”
“Can you smell it?” Halaska laughs. “I can’t smell it anymore.”
I can smell it, alright. Really, I’m lucky to be here for this relatively early necropsy, because with some other whales, the team doesn’t do just one. If the whale is big enough, they’ll do an initial exploration, then come back after it’s rotted more for better access to bones. At that point, the insides are more or less soup.
Halaska brings me toward the tail. “Then if you stand here, this will be the intestinal contents, so you’ve got a little bit of brownish red material,” she says. That’d be the foul puddle on the ground. “It’s just a different smell, it’s almost like feces combined with a little bit of fat.”
“Not bacon grease fat,” she clarifies.
I leave her to her work. The team slices deeper, every so often puncturing cavities and letting out a hiss of gas. Beneath all that blubber, they’ve revealed a massive band of purple flesh running down the whale’s left side. It’s severe hemorrhaging, and pretty much only one thing can do that to an animal this size: a ship strike.
But you know what they say about assumptions. Just days before, a gray whale had washed ashore on Tennessee Valley Beach, nine miles to the south. “When we went out the first day, we saw that there were clear skull fractures, so we were thinking maybe a ship strike,” says Halaska. After all, this is a major shipping area. “But when we got in there, she had clear lines on her neck and into the muscle layer where she had this chronic bruising from an entanglement.” She’d run into a net, probably drowned or died of exhaustion, and then was struck by a ship.
Hemorrhaging on this new whale, though, is a big clue. That only happens to tissue while an animal is still alive. So the team digs deeper.
On the right side of the whale, a scientist cutting through flesh pulls out worm-like endoparasites—those would be parasites that live inside their host, common for a whale—and puts them in a plastic baggy. Then he pulls out a rib fragment about six inches long. He holds it in the air and calls out to Halaska over the top of the whale. She yells back to set it aside, so he lays it carefully on a slice of blubber on the beach.
Next Halaska climbs atop the whale’s belly. She’s after the sternum, that bit of bone in the middle of your ribs. She slices away with her mini-sword, cutting out a huge square of flesh that she kicks to the ground. She too finds rib fragments.
Halaska scrambles down. At this point, her waders are not only covered in whale muck, but she’s also got a small purple smear of it on the right side of her face. “I actually found one rib that has bone bruising,” she tells me. “So what happens is, it was hit and it causes the bone itself to bleed, it taints the bone pink. So it was definitely alive when it was hit.”
The team finds more fractured ribs, as well as fractured vertebrae near the head. The skull itself is fractured, all with associated hemorrhaging.
A ship strike, through and through—you just couldn’t tell it from the outside, likely because the skin was so decayed. The damage stretches from the whale’s left side, up and over into her sternum, with fractures also on the left side, where that fellow found his own rib fragment. “So it looks almost like she rolled when she got hit,” Halaska says. “It’s unfortunate. It really sucks. It sucks for her.”
“I honestly hope for that animal’s sake it was instant,” she adds.
That doesn’t make us humans merciful. This fin whale was a victim of the Bay Area’s bustling commerce, ships steaming through the Golden Gate with little regard for our ocean-going mammalian relatives. So long as the Bay Area exists, that won’t end.
But by proving that ships are killing whales—by slicing through rotten flesh and hunting for rib fragments and crawling atop massive bodies—Halaska and her team can help influence policy. Getting ships to slow down in certain areas, for instance. “Every case that we do just helps to further inform the public and inform policymakers what’s happening in the oceans,” Halaska says.
It’s increasingly clear something has to change. That other whale that got tangled and then was struck by a ship? Someone reported it beached on May 18, two days after NOAA got word of a ship entering San Francisco Bay with yet another fin whale draped across its bow. That animal sank and resurfaced in Alameda, near Oakland. It was towed to Angel Island in the bay, where scientists tied it to a post at high tide. Then once low tide came along, they did their necropsy, found fractures and hemorrhaging, and confirmed the cause of death.
The fin whale sprawled at my feet will enter the annals of science, but will see little ceremony beyond that. Towing it out to sea and sinking it would be too difficult. You certainly can’t blow it up, as Oregon learned the hard way in 1970. You could bury it, sure, but that’s not really necessary. This whale will be left to rot where it lies. That may not please beachgoing humans, but the scavengers will certainly appreciate it—seagull company excluded.