For those of you who may have missed my previous article, A Sad Gray Whale of A Tale, last June while conducting our survey for the COASST program we came upon the carcass of a decomposing Gray Whale just south of our survey beach near Strawberry Point.
For our July survey, we were anxious to go back and check on the state of the carcass. Surprisingly, or at least to me, almost all of the soft tissue was gone. The remaining bones were scattered over a wide area as well. I’m assuming that was due to scavenging.
From everything I’ve read, it seems awfully accelerated. Does anyone have any experience with this? I’d love to hear your comments below.
Where does a dead whale go? A dead cetacean may end up on a shoreline or beach or may float in the ocean for a period of time before sinking to the seafloor. After death, if the carcass ends up on a beach, it plays an important role in its surrounding terrestrial ecosystem, often immediately becoming prey to a number of scavengers and omnivorous species, including seabirds, wolves and bears.
Decomposition begins almost immediately after death and there are several processes that begin to break down various parts of a cetacean’s body. Autolysis (the process in which cells or tissues are broken down by naturally occurring enzymes), bacterial decomposition, putrification (the process of breaking down proteins and is responsible for organ liquefaction), and fermentation all occur and all produce noxious gases such as CO2, methane, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia.
I have to admit that given all of this information I still am surprised at how quickly our Strawberry Point Gray Whale decomposed.
Gases accumulate in the body cavity of a deceased cetacean causing, in some cases, extreme bloating. An estimated 3-5 atmospheres of pressure can build inside the whale, equivalent to the pressure experienced diving 40 meters underwater. Eventually, these gases find a means of escaping the body through weak points in the connective tissue, skin, and blubber.
This process can occur rapidly, resulting in an explosive event, where gases and organs may be propelled several meters from a whale upon release, or slowly if several points of escape are present. Once the bloating has ceased, decomposition will continue to occur until all tissue has been broken down and only the skeleton remains.