What happens to whales when they die?

By: Cristen Conger

Marine Mammal Image Gallery A whale is washed ashore on a beach in Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo. See more pictures of marine mammals.
Marine Mammal Image Gallery A whale is washed ashore on a beach in Ibaraki Prefecture, northeast of Tokyo. See more pictures of marine mammals.
Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images

In 1970, the Oregon Department of Transportation encountered a huge problem. More precisely, the agency faced a predicament the size of, well, an 8-ton (7.2-metric ton) whale. That November, a dead sperm whale washed up on the Oregon shore near the coastal city of Florence. If you've ever caught a whiff of just a few ounces of rotting meat in your refrigerator, you can imagine the odor that 16,000 pounds (7,256 kilograms) would emit. For that reason, the task of somehow removing that mountain of flabby flesh was assigned to the DOT.

How did the agency tackle such a gargantuan task? In a feat that has since evolved into an Internet legend thanks to footage posted on YouTube, the Oregon DOT decided that the most efficient way to dispose of the whale was simply to blow it up. Rigging a half-ton (0.45 metric tons) of dynamite to the corpse, it seemed like a sure thing that upon detonation the whale would instantaneously transform into chunks the size of fish sticks that would splash into the ocean.


But DOT officials and spectators weren't so lucky. While they did witness an enormous explosion, the resulting debris flew toward land instead of sea, showering whale guts on onlookers and nearby cars [source: Welch]. Nine years later, when 41 dead sperm whales drifted to Oregon shores, no one pulled out the explosives. Instead, officials performed a makeshift cremation by burying and burning the carcasses over the span of two days [source: Chawkins].

In the case of beached whales like these, funeral proceedings aren't exactly ceremonious. Carcasses hauled out to sea may wash up again, and buried ones can release shark-attracting oil [source: Chawkins]. If the area is uninhabited, experts recommend the simplest option: Leave the body alone and let nature take its course [source: Geraci and Lounsbury]. The main caveat to that, however, is remembering to slice open the abdomen to avoid a gassy buildup inside the whale that could cause a messy eruption [source: Geraci and Lounsbury]. Residents in Tainan, Taiwan witnessed this cetacean surprise in 2004, when researchers were transporting a dead sperm whale that suddenly exploded on a city street [source: MSNBC].

Beached whales aren't sights to celebrate since many species teeter on the brink of becoming endangered. Nevertheless, it's certainly easier for people to deal with when it happens in the mammal's own territory -- the ocean. However sad or unfortunate, whale death benefits other ocean inhabitants because it sparks the beginning of new life.

Whale Fall: Life After Death

When a whale dies in the ocean, its carcass can become home to entirely new ecosystems.
When a whale dies in the ocean, its carcass can become home to entirely new ecosystems.
Doug Allen/Getty Images

When whales die in the ocean, their bodies eventually sink to the bottom. Once the body comes to rest, biologists refer to this as a whale fall. As you would guess, other fish and sea animals initially eat the meat off the carcass. However, what came as a surprise to ocean researchers was the finding that dead whales support entire ecosystems.

In 1998, researchers at the University of Hawaii discovered that at least 12,490 individual organisms representing more than 43 species were living off of a whale fall in the deep North Pacific Ocean [source: Bennett et al]. But some of these sea creatures, which included rare species of clams, worms and eyeless shrimp, weren't nibbling away at the remains. Instead, the colonies were chemoautotrophic, which means they produce their own food via chemicals [source: Russo]. Chemoautotrophy is similar to photosynthesis in plants, except it doesn't require sunlight since the sun's rays don't penetrate the depths of the water.


Further investigation into these novel ecosystems found that bacteria that overtake a whale skeleton feed off the bones, which consists of 60 percent fat [source: Russo]. The bacteria then produce hydrogen sulfide, a chemical with the signature rotten-egg scent. Those thousands of chemoautotrophic sea creatures convert the hydrogen sulfide into usable energy to thrive and reproduce.

A few years ago, oceanographers mapped out the development stages of these underwater phenomena. First comes the mobile-scavenger stage, when fish strip around 90 percent of the tissue from the whale fall [source: Smith and Baco]. After a few months or years, depending on the size of the whale, marine worms and crustaceans take up residence on and inside the remains, marking the enrichment opportunist stage [source: Smith and Baco]. Finally, the sulphophilic stage takes place, in which the hydrogen sulfide-emitting bacteria are established and help to nourish chemoautotrophic organisms [source: Smith and Baco]. The sulphophilic phase will last decades.

Researchers have located similar chemoautotrophic colonies -- without whale carcasses involved -- near cold seeps and hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. Seeps and vents are essentially underwater vacuums and geysers where breaks occur in the Earth's tectonic plates. The seeps and vents release hydrogen sulfide, like what the bacteria release on the whale carcasses. Thanks to that chemical, you'll find chemoautotrophic organisms, such as related mussel species, in these areas similar to those found living at whale falls [source: Smith and Baco].

Illustrating the unique environment created from whale falls, two new species of worms were identified on a whale carcass. Osedax frankpressi and Osedax rubiplumus live off whale bone and resemble pink glow sticks with streamers. At first, researchers thought that they could only see the females of these newfound species. But they soon realized that the females harbor the males inside of their rudimentary bodies, allowing them to reproduce exponentially [source: Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute]. The worms attach to the whale fall during the enrichment opportunist stage. By having large numbers of offspring, these worms can propagate throughout the ocean encountering other whale falls and restarting the process [source: Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute]. These are only two of at least 16 new species that oceanographers have identified at whale falls [source: Russo].

Without whale carcasses, these fascinating creatures wouldn't exist in the frigid ocean depths. And that certainly beats disposing of whales with dynamite.

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  • Bennett, Bruce A.; Smith, Craig R.; Glaser, Bryce and Maybaum, Hilary L. "Faunal community structure of a chemoautotrophic assemblage on whale bones in the deep northeast Pacific Ocean." Marine Ecology Progress Series. May 19, 1994. (Aug. 13, 2008)http://www.int-res.com/articles/meps/108/m108p205.pdf
  • Chawkins, Steve. "Disposing of a whale? A hulk of a problem - Safely getting rid of a rotting carcass is quite the challenge, as beach towns recently learned." Los Angeles Times. Oct. 8, 2007. (Aug. 13, 2008)http://articles.latimes.com/2007/oct/08/local/me-whale8
  • "Deep sea ecology: hydrothermal vents and cold seeps." World Wildlife Fund. (Aug. 13, 2008)http://www.panda.org/about_wwf/what_we_do/marine/blue_planet/deep_sea/vents_seeps/index.cfm
  • Geraci, Joseph R. and Lounsbury, Valerie J. "Marine Mammals Ashore." Texas A&M University Sea Grant College Program. National Aquarium. 2005. (Aug. 13, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=AIwWScWoP6MC
  • Russo, Julie Zeidner. "This Whale's (After) Life." National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Aug. 13, 2008)http://www.nurp.noaa.gov/Spotlight/Whales.htm
  • Smith, Craig R. and Baco, Amy R. "Ecology Of Whale Falls At The Deep-Sea Floor." Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review. 2003. (Aug. 13, 2008)http://www.soest.hawaii.edu/oceanography/faculty/csmith/Files/Smith%20and%20Baco%202003.pdf
  • "Thar she blows! Dead whale explodes." MSNBC. Jan. 29, 2004. (Aug. 13, 2008)http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4096586/
  • Welch, Bob. "Bob Welch: Tale of flying blubber keeps bubbling up." The Register-Guard. Nov. 10, 2005. (Aug. 13, 2008)http://rgweb.registerguard.com/news/2005/11/10/d1.cr.welch.1110.p1.php?section=cityregion:
  • "Whale carcass yields bone-devouring worms." Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. July 29, 2004. (Aug. 13, 2008)http://www.mbari.org/news/news_releases/2004/whalefall.html