What to do with beached whales who can’t be guided back out to sea, and so perish on the sand? In parts of New Zealand where the indigenous Maori hold sway, this has become quite the conundrum. The trust that oversees Maori fisheries recently proposed harvesting such unfortunate cetaceans for meat—arguably a more humane option than traditional whaling, though perhaps lacking a certain ceremonial oomph. But that suggestion may conflict with a Maori custom that calls for dead whales to be treated with reverence due deceased humans, a policy that would seem to forbid the lopping off of blubber post-mortem.
But is the Maori insistence on proper burials posing a threat to beachgoers’ health?:
Whales buried beneath New Zealand beaches could be releasing harmful toxins into the sand, a new study has concluded.
A 2009 thesis by AUT masters student Ann Bui studied the chemical effects of whale burial at Pakiri beach and Muriwai beach over six months in 2008.
Oceanographer Steve O’Shea, who was overseeing the project, said initial results show “massive spikes” in E coli bacteria 18 months after burial. He also suspected graves could house listeria bacteria.
“We’ve got 8000 whales buried under our beaches,” he said. “Is there a ticking time bomb beneath the sand?”
It’s also worth noting that during last month’s mass beaching, guards were posted in order to prevent local fishermen from removing the whales’ teeth—presumably because they wished to manufacture some of these powerful talismans.