Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Buried Whales, Cont’d

January 22nd, 2010 · 3 Comments

Our recent post about the hazards of whale burial attracted a celebrity commenter: Steve O’Shea of the Auckland University of Technology. Best known for his squid-hunting endeavors, O’Shea is also overseeing the research into the public-health consequences of interring beached whales. He takes us to school thusly:

I can assure you that E. coli is the very least of our concerns; there’s some real bad stuff in there.

The reason for burial is not because of maori insistence; burial is commonplace worldwide, and probably the most economic solution to the problem of ‘what to do’ with a large carcass. The problem with burial is that the gravesites are unmarked, and massive spikes in bacteria persist in the sands to some depth (4 metres) for at least 18 months (this is the latest data we have). Given ~ 8000 whales have been buried in our beaches since 1978 alone, that’s a lot of potential beach contamination, and a lot of these bacteria can cause very serious health issues. Thus, our major concern is the health and safety implications of this practice; at the very lease the grave sites should be marked. The danger is, of course, that people then will dig the carcasses up to recover teeth or bone; both are important to maori.

One thing that O’Shea didn’t mention, however: the potential for buried whales to attract sharks. That possibility was explored in a 2008 Surfer magazine article, which kicked off with this memorable lede:

Burying whales in the sand close to popular surf spots in the middle of white shark season is not so smart. In landed terms, it is the equivalent of placing a 70 foot pepperoni pizza between a Boy Scout troop and a den of hungry grizzly bears – in the spring…when the bears are hungry.

Okay, color us convinced. But this leaves us with a question: Is the solution to simply bury the whales much deeper, or is there a non-burial alternative that should be employed instead? Cremation strikes us as unfeasible, given the vast amounts of energy that would be required. But harvesting the unfortunate cetaceans for usable by-products may violate international law. Who’s got the$64,000 solution to this one?

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