How Do You Dispose of a Dead Whale? (Hint: Not in a Tiny Dumpster)

How do you get rid of a dead whale? Not with a standard dumpster, as the city of Rye, New Hampshire, found out the hard way.

In a video posted on Twitter by a reporter at the New Hampshire Union Leader, the carcass of a minke whale flops ignominiously on the pavement after a forklift fails to maneuver it into a too-small dumpster. It looks like something for Fail Blog, but disposing of dead whales is serious business. That's even more relevant now, said Katie Pugliares-Bonner, a senior biologist and necropsy specialist at the New England Aquarium.

"There are currently unusual mortality events in our area involving three different species of large whales," Pugliares-Bonner told Live Science. Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and the North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are all dying at abnormally high rates. North Atlantic right whales are endangered, with only about 350 estimated survivors. [In Photos: Tracking Humpback Whales in the South Pacific Ocean]

Whale disposal 

When whale corpses wash ashore, biologists like Pugliares-Bonner want to examine them. Stranded carcasses are one of the few opportunities researchers have to get up close and personal with these giant, sea-dwelling mammals. Necropsies can reveal if the animals have tangled with boat propellers or fishing gear, or if they've succumbed to infectious disease, Pugliares-Bonner said. That information, in turn, goes to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help inform conservation and wildlife management policies.

In fact, the minke whale that washed ashore in Rye was being put in a dumpster because it was being moved to an alternative site for a postmortem exam. After the failed attempt at transport Monday night (Sept. 17), state officials provided a larger dumpster on Tuesday morning to move the whale, according to the Union Leader.

Biologists never start a necropsy without a firm disposal plan in place, Pugliares-Bonner said. The cost of the disposal is typically the responsibility of the state or municipality where the whale washes up. Groups like the New England Aquarium Marine Animal Rescue Department and the Seacoast Science Center, which conducted the Rye whale necropsy, can provide expertise, Pugliares-Bonner said. After all, few people know how thick of a chain it takes to pull a 30-foot whale carcass across a beach, or can confidently remove a whale's head from the rest of its body to ease disposal.

Disposal options

In the ideal situation, a whale carcass washes up onshore in a place where there is enough land to conduct a necropsy and easy access for heavy machinery, Pugliares-Bonner said. Ideally, scientists will be able to start the postmortem within 24 hours or so of death, before rot sets in. In this best-case scenario — which "rarely happens," she said — the whale can be buried right on-site. [Whale Photos: Giants of the Deep]

Failing that, biologists often recruit the Coast Guard or a local harbormaster to tow the carcass behind a boat to a better spot. If the whale washes up or can be towed to a good place to do a postmortem but not a burial, it can sometimes be removed from the site piece by piece for disposal someplace else, Pugliares-Bonner said. In Massachusetts, Department of Fish and Wildlife official Tom French, who heads the state's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program, will sometimes work with marine nonprofits to remove and clean whale bones to be used as museum specimens, Pugliares-Bonner said.

When carcasses can't be buried on-site, they usually end up in landfills or composting centers. This can be complicated, Pugliares-Bonner said, because it's illegal to sell marine mammal parts, except in very limited circumstances. Thus, composting centers can't sell the composted remains of whales, though they still sometimes volunteer their facilities to break down the body anyway.  

Just towing a whale carcass out to sea isn't usually an option, Pugliares-Bonner said, because the floating corpse can become a boating hazard, if it doesn't just float a few miles and beach at a nearby town.

 "That's not a nice thing to do to your neighbor," she said.

But there are circumstances where a whale carcass is simply inaccessible. In one case, Pugliares-Bonner recalled, a 55-foot fin whale died and was floating in Boston Harbor. There was nowhere to tow the animal, so it simply bobbed around until a storm blew in and carried it to Rockport, Massachusetts. By that time, Pugliares-Bonner said, the whale was too decomposed to determine anything about its health or what killed it.

The past 45 days have seen three whale necropsies in the North Atlantic region from Maine to Virginia, Pugliares-Bonner said, plus two or three additional stranded corpses that washed out to sea before scientists could get to them.

"As long as this unusual mortality event is happening, and more whales keep dying," she said, "it's going to continue to be an issue that multiple towns are going to deal with."

Original article on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.