Whale discovery set to overhaul 'major issue' after decades of failure

Whale carcasses can feed marine ecosystems for seven years. So why do Aussie councils bury beached whales at the tip?

Sharks feeding on a humpback whale carcass on the ocean floor.
The whale carcass looks quite small until you compare it to the tiger shark eating it. Source: Laura Gourgas

Lying on the ocean floor, the decaying whale carcass looks small. But once you compare it to the tiger shark feeding on its flesh for scale, its mammoth size becomes clear.

Dead whale bodies can feed a whole ecosystem for at least seven years, making them an essential component of healthy marine environments. But when they beach themselves and die, Australian councils don’t often opt to push them back out to sea.

Instead its common practice to bury them at the tip. And one local authority in the United States famously tried to blow one up, showering the town in rotten whale flesh.

“After over 50 years, it still makes me laugh,” whale researcher Dr Olaf Meynecke told Yahoo News. “The guy has so much certainty that by blowing it up, the whale would just disintegrate into bite-sized pieces for seagulls.”

A still from television in the 1970s. A local reporter talks to a man involved in blowing up a whale carcass.
Authorities told a local reporter they were confident the dynamite would work. Source: KATU-TV

The Griffith University marine ecologist thinks we've been failing for decades by trying to deal with whales on land. In particular, the most popular method of hauling it to the tip is expensive and it robs marine life of a valuable nutrition source.

"As we’ve seen more and more whales stranding on Australian beaches in past years, the effective, safe and culturally sensitive removal of whale remains near or on public beaches has become a major issue,” Meynecke said in a statement.

He has been investigating the option of dragging them out into deeper water. Its a solution authorities have been scared of trying because they fear the body will float back to shore and attract sharks.

To determine if council concerns were justified, his team put together a practical experiment.

Two images taken at sea off the Queensland coast, showing a tracking device being fitted to the whale.
The whale was roped and a tracking device was attached. Source: Paddy Marine

They found a 14-metre female humpback in waters off Queensland’s Noosa Heads in July, 2023. The poor animal is believed to have been decapitated by a passing ship.

After intercepting her rotting body, they dragged it 30km out to shore and affixed a satellite tracking device. They monitored it for six days before it finally dropped to the seafloor.

“When you put a carcass into the East Australian Current, it should in theory be pushed down south or further offshore,” he told Yahoo.

“But because we had pretty strong southeasterly winds it was pushed further north and then the coastal currents picked it up.

“It was actually speeding up towards the end. And no one thought it would travel over 150 km. That was a substantial distance.”

Meynecke’s work is leading to accurate forecasts of where whale carcasses will drift. And he argues off-shore disposal is now the most ethical, safe and cost-effective method.

Close-up picture of a dead whale on the seafloor.
A dead whale can feed a marine ecosystem for years. Source: Laura Gourgas

“The landfill option has been tempting because burying a whale means it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said.

“There are arguments about not releasing it offshore because it will come back. But we show you just have to pick the right spot and its determined by wind and currents.

“So with logic we can predict where it will go.”

‘Dead on the beach? Predicting the drift of whale remains improves management for offshore disposal’ has been published in the Journal of Marine Science and Engineering.

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