What happens to dead whales in the UK after they're beached?

By Del Crookes
Newsbeat reporter

Published
Dead sperm whale, Skegness

Tests are being carried out on three dead sperm whales which were washed up on a beach in Lincolnshire.

They may be from the same pod as a whale that died in Norfolk on Friday.

Scientists think the pod strayed into shallow waters looking for food and then became disorientated.

The whales are massive - they're about 14 metres long (46ft) - the same as a truck with a trailer behind it. They also weigh around 30 tonnes - or just under two coaches.

One of them exploded as tests were being carried out.

Image source, Kurnia Aerial Photography
Image caption,
The two other whales were found at Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire

We asked Simon Watt from Channel 4's Inside Nature's Giants what happens to whales after they beach themselves or are washed up.

Try to save it - if it's still alive

"First thing, you're trying to see if you can save the whale.

"The creatures are huge though and the problem is that when they're out of the water, their lungs start to collapse. Because they haven't got the buoyancy of the water to support them, they start to suffocate because they're so heavy.

"These are relatively intelligent creatures and they do have a social life, so they'll probably be missed to some degree."

If it's dead - get rid of the body quickly

Image source, PA

"We have to get rid of the body as fast as possible because that's a lot of meat suddenly rotting.

"It could end up attracting scavengers, spreading disease and reeks to high heaven.

"There are all sorts of disgusting but wonderfully named chemicals that start leaching out of creatures like this - putrescine and cadaverine - and the odour sticks to your body because they're oil-based.

Image caption,
Someone spray painted one of the whales which was beached in Lincolnshire

"You'll reek of a dead whale for a long time afterwards if you get close to one.

"Because of the bloating they feel like a drum. You can feel the pressure behind it. They also have a smooth-ish skin."

Then it's the whale's autopsy

"The Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) have people at London Zoo and the Natural History Museum who will take samples throughout this process.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Another beached whale died in Norfolk on Saturday - another two whales managed to swim free

"They'll be looking to see whether these whales have any infections. It could be that one whale is passing infection on to another one in the same pod.

"It could be to do with climate change, it could be the noises in the sea and they can talk across the oceans.

"These are creatures which are reliant on their hearing - so the noises of ships, deep sea sonar and drilling all make whales go to places that they wouldn't otherwise go."

The body will be cut up...

"The body will then be dismembered and sent to be rendered down. In some parts of the world they leave the bones to be picked clean by crabs, seagulls, crows and maggots - which is pretty efficient.

"When you're talking about dissecting them they're using things like a flensing knife, which is a bit like a scythe with attitude, or chainsaws.

"You may have also seen exploding whales on YouTube.

"That's because there's a massive amount of bacteria which are inside them and - because they have that thick blubber layer - they're staying warm despite being dead, so they start bloating quickly with the build-up of gases like carbon dioxide and methane.

"You make little nicks along the side - a colleague I once worked with described that as the whale fart symphony.

"If you pierce the body cavity, intestines will start spewing all over the place.

"And a whale exploding isn't as dramatic as it sounds. A bit of it gives way but it's still a shock and you wouldn't want to be nearby."

...and then it's disposed of

Image source, AFP/Getty Images

"You're using dumper trucks, anything you would use in construction, tractors, diggers [to get rid of the body].

"You have to have vehicles that can get down on to the beach. Also you're racing against the tides, otherwise all that filth will be spread all the way down the coastline."

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