What do you do with the rotten carcass of a really big whale?
That's not a rhetorical question or a set-up for a joke. Every year, hundreds of dead cetaceans—from the relatively small pilot variety to the gigantic blue whale—wash up on shores around the world.
On Feb. 14, in fact, the decaying body of a fin whale—otherwise known as the second largest animal on the planet—showed up in the waters just off the Children's Pool in La Jolla. No one knows exactly from whence the great beast came, but alert lifeguards had a good idea where it was headed—straight toward the jagged nooks and crevices of the La Jolla shoreline.
Lifeguards feared the 45-foot-long carcass would get hung up on the rocks and stink up the shoreline. So they hooked it with nets and towed it to Fiesta Island, where experts from the National Marine Fisheries Service measured and examined it to try to determine why it died. They were ultimately unable to due to the animal's advanced decomposed state.
But having saved the residents of La Jolla from olfactory disaster, the lifeguards still faced that crucial question: What, exactly, do you do with the carcass of a whale?
You can't just kick sand over it, and dousing it with gasoline and setting it afire is bad for tourism. You could try tossing the problem over to another agency, as L.A. tried to do with the body of a 25-foot humpback carcass in August 2005, but that just leads to an embarrassing media circus when the other agency tosses it right back to you. That happened when the National Marine Fisheries Service told L.A., “Thanks, but we've got enough humpback carcasses.”You could try blowing up the beast, but no one really recommends that ever since a YouTube video circulated of
Oregon state police trying it a few years back. If you're one of the 10 or so people who still haven't seen the disastrous results of that escapade, here's the link.
But, fortunately, this wasn't the first time San Diego officials were faced with a dead-whale problem. Cetaceans large and small have washed up on local shores at least a dozen times in the past decade. So, officials from the Park and Recreation Department and other city agencies did what they did in previous incidents: They loaded the whale on a big truck and drove it down to Miramar Landfill.
“The carcass was handled as respectfully as something that large can be handled,” says Maurice Luque, spokesperson for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, of the 35,000-pound animal. “Workers had several tractor-type rigs, six or seven of them on either side of the carcass, lifting it into a dump truck.”
For the record, it's perfectly legal to dump a whale in a landfill, provided you have permission from the appropriate local agency. Lifeguard Services is such an agency.
Jose Ysea, spokesperson for the San Diego Environmental Services Department, says the interring of a whale at a landfill was such an odd sight that he asked his 15-year-old son to come out and see it.
“My boy said, ‘No, thanks, Dad. I'd rather go to SeaWorld,'” he says.