Flora and Fauna | Science

A Whale Of A Problem: Town Faces Threat Of Exploding Carcass

NPR | May 1, 2014 7:04 a.m.

Contributed By:

Scott Neuman

A blue whale carcass washed up last week in Trout River, Newfoundland, Canada.

A blue whale carcass washed up last week in Trout River, Newfoundland, Canada.

Courtesy of Don Bradshaw/NTV News, Don Bradshaw

People of the small Canadian town of Trout River, Newfoundland, have a big problem that just might blow up in their faces: What to do with a giant blue whale carcass that’s washed up on the beach and some say threatens to spontaneously combust.

The 80-foot-long whale appeared on the beach in the town of about 600 people a week ago. Since then, the mass of rotting blubber has become bloated with combustible methane gas and, to put it delicately, “emitting a powerful stench.”

(The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. says the nearby town of Rocky Harbour has its own whale problem.)

To get an idea of the sheer size of the problem faced by Trout River, even in its less gassy state, the blue whale is the largest living animal on Earth.

“[The] whale’s girth has more than doubled and there is a legitimate fear that it could explode,” eCanadaNow.com reports. It adds:

“Now, people are coming to see the spectacle of the greatly expanded blue whale.

“Some have considered pushing the blue whale back out to sea and letting it become somebody else’s problem. Besides the obvious issue of the town likely lacking the ability to do that, it would put sea vessels at risk.”

“If that whale does explode, we don’t know what danger that would be to our infrastructure … or to people,” Trout River’s town clerk, Emily Butler, tells The Telegram. Butler says the whale “looks as if it’s a big balloon, from a distance.”

Butler worries that what will happen if the carcass remains grounded near the town’s historic wooden boardwalk. “It’s only a matter of time — as the weather warms up, it’s only going to [get] worse,” she tells the CBC:

“Even now, the town is drawing a different kind of visitor: People from the region who drive to take in the unusual sight of a blue whale right on the shoreline.

“It’s very difficult to keep people away, simply because it’s not too often that you see a blue whale,” she said.

However, the U.K.’s Metro quotes Jack Lawson, a research scientist with Canada’s fisheries department, as saying the chances of a whale-sized explosion are “very small.”

“Eventually, that gas will seep out….It will just deflate like an old balloon,’ he said.

‘The risk will come from somebody with a sharp blade who decides they want to cut a hole in the side to see what happens, or if someone is foolish enough to walk on it,” Lawson says.

“With this animal (in Newfoundland), it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to happen, especially spontaneously,” he says.

This reminds us of an obituary that The Two-Way’s Bill Chappell wrote last year — not an obit for a whale, but for an Oregon highway engineer, George Thornton. In 1970, Thornton turned his engineering talents to a similar cetacean problem in his state, leading an effort to blow up a dead whale on the beach there (presumably before it exploded on its own).

“Thornton’s decision resulted in a foul shower of whale blubber; video of the event has resurfaced periodically, often leading viewers to declare the whole thing a hoax,” Bill wrote.

[Copyright 2014 NPR]

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