Another Whale Exploded: Some Thoughts

Decomposition is a beast.

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Nov 27 2013, 6:00pm

Just in time to ruin your holiday appetite, here’s a video of a whale corpse that exploded yesterday in the Faroe Islands.

The Faroe Islands play host to an annual pilot whale hunt, during which hundreds of animals are slaughtered. This sperm whale did not perish of human machinations, though, but rather from the forever vague “natural causes.” In an attempt to obtain its skeleton for a local museum, a biologist took his sickle to the whale’s stomach, only to find himself covered in blood and guts moments later.

Before the biological blast, the scene is somber. The whale’s body lies stiff, its mouth agape, its skin battered with scars. As the slicing begins, puckering at the edge of the cut signals that the insides may want out. And then it happens: The body simply pops like a balloon, even emitting a similar sound. It’s sort of like the tauntaun scene in The Empire Strikes Back, except with the ancient agrarian equivalent of a light saber and far, far more gore.

Certainly, this is neither the first nor the last time this sort of thing has happened. Nor is it the first nor the last time we citizens of the web will get a macabre kick out of the watching biology run its course. In fact, the Faroe Islands whale is just the latest contribution to the already noteworthy cache of Internet-famous exploding whales.

Of course, the most beloved of all exploding whales would be that poor cetacean whose body met a volatile end in Oregon in 1970. Like the Faroese specimen, this whale was also a sperm whale. But that’s where the similarities end.

In a hurry to remove the malodorous carcass from its almost-final resting place on the beach, a representative from the Oregon Highway Division named George Thornton decided to blow up the whale with a comically large half-ton worth of dynamite. Thornton died late last month, but his disposal efforts, which resulted in flying chunks of blubber clunking down on the beach, have long since been permanently etched in the disorienting annals of internet culture.

Then there’s the Taiwanese exploding whale, who even in death maintains a gloriously lo-tech Angelfire webpage. Scientists suspect the 56-foot long whale had been critically injured, after which it beached in southern Taiwan and died in January 2004. While its body was en route to a university laboratory to be examined, it exploded in the middle of a busy street, sending entrails and blood flying. Said a local to BBC News: “What a stinking mess.”

The science behind exploding whales is fundamentally not all that different from the science behind exploding caskets. Whether it belonged to a majestic marine creature or a landlubbing human, a dead body undergoes decomposition. As anaerobic metabolism takes place within the deceased, gases like methane, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia build up, causing bloat and some terrible smells. The Faroe Islands' exploding whale was visibly bloated at the time of his dissection. When the pent-up gases within his abdomen had an opportunity to escape, they did so in force. 

A longer video is available on the website of the local news station that originally captured the gross belly burst. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Faroese and so could not tell exactly what was going on. I'm left wondering:

  • What is that gurgling sound coming from the mouth of the whale—more decomposition activity?
  • Is that really a lengthy shot of the whale’s penis?
  • Do I pity the man with putrid whale chunks on his face? Or the man hosing whale blood off a wall more?

Whatever the answers to those questions, one thing is for certain: Decomposition is a beast. And as much as the internet loves a disgusting demonstration of how biology works, I’m sure as hell glad I wasn’t actually there. 

@heyiamlex