Before it rots: Why there’s such a hurry to remove smelly, decomposing 30-ton whale

Jeff Sibley puts a hand over his nose, trying to block the stench of decomposing whale.

“It’s like the worst garbage smell you can think of,” he said, his eyes watering. “I almost threw up. It’s like death.”

Sibley was among dozens of curious lookie-loos Monday who made the trek to San Onofre State Beach to see up close, and to take selfies with – and to pay respects to – a deceased 40-foot gray whale that a day earlier had washed up onto cobblestones at Lower Trestles, a famous surf spot south of San Clemente.

The whale, which apparently died of natural causes, is more than a sad curiosity. It’s also an engineering and biological headache.

Officials are fighting a clock as the body bloats and softens, struggling to decide just how to dispose of the 60,000-pound whale, which is sinking deeper into the sand by the hour. If they can’t dispose of the body quickly, the remains could make things unpleasant for beach visitors and pose a potential shark risk for surfers.

“We’re trying to figure this thing out,” said Rich Haydon, state parks superintendent at San Onofre State Beach, who spent the morning calling contractors and brainstorming options about how to remove the whale.

As rangers weighed their options, nature worked hard on the whale’s body. Even during a relatively cool morning, the dark skin was stretching apart as the tan-colored blubber expanded; blood and goo oozed out into the sand and seeped into the ocean.

It’s not a first, of course. Dead whales occasionally wash up on beaches along Orange County’s coastline. Most are swiftly buried in the sand, away from the water line, or hauled by boat out to sea.

But the dead whale at Trestles poses several challenges, starting with its location.

“It couldn’t have washed up in a worse place,” Haydon said.

For one thing, the railroad tracks in the area limit beach access to a vertical clearance of about 12 feet. That’s not tall enough, Haydon said, for a machine that could haul away 30 tons of whale.

Another option is for a boat to tow the body into the ocean, with hopes of the carcass sinking or breaking apart far from shore. But Haydon pointed out a potential drawback.

“It could come back on the beach.”

To make matters worse, the weather isn’t helping. A small-craft advisory was in effect Monday and is expected again today, with 25-mph wind gusts that could make it difficult for a boat to reach shore and pull the whale into the ocean.

“Both options right now are difficult,” Haydon said.

What they don’t want to do is strap dynamite onto the dead whale and dispose of it by demolition, like some people did in Oregon in the late 1970s. That effort ended with chunks of blubber covering the sand and flying into the distance, with one large piece crushing a car a quarter mile away.

Mike Bursk, captain of the research vessel “Sea Explorer” out of the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, saw the dead whale a few times at sea before it washed up. On Monday, he was among the visitors who went to the beach to get a closer look.

He said the whale is an adult male, about 40 feet long. He estimated it to weigh about 30 tons. He said it was likely dead for a week, likely from old age, before washing up on shore.

He predicted the decomposition, while natural, could become gruesome.

“It will reach a point where an indescribable muck will come out. It will be just hideous,” Bursk said. “Most (decomposition) activity is in the gut cavity, and it’s like a stew … right now.”

If the whale is left on the beach, Bursk guesses it would take months for it to fully decompose and perhaps a year before there would be nothing but bone.

He believes towing it out to sea sounds like a logical solution, but said the process would likely just rip its tail off because the creature is already slightly buried into the sand.

“A whale this size is a real problem.”

Burial also is an imperfect option.

“The surfers claim – and probably accurately claim – the oils do attract predators to their surf zones,” Bursk said. “You don’t necessarily want to do that.”

That’s a concern for Sibley, whose 13-year-old daughter, Samantha, likes to surf at Trestles.

“You know that’s just going out to all the animals out there,” he said.

Longtime surfers tell stories of a pair of sharks, which they named “Fluffy” and “Bumper,” that lingered for years after a whale died and was buried near San Onofre’s Trail One surf spot.

But Haydon said the story is urban legend.

“We had sharks there before that,” he said.

Still, surfers might want to think twice before paddling out at Lowers.

“I think there’s a food source right now,“ he said. “I think surfers should use caution in the area.”

News of the washed-up whale created a buzz in the surf community. Lower Trestles is considered one of the world’s best surf spots and is a stop on the World Surf League world tour.

Even 11-time world champion Kelly Slater mentioned the whale on his Instagram account.

“A mile or two south, and we probably wouldn’t take nearly as much notice,” Slater wrote, along with posting a photo of the whale.

“Good summer to surf the wave pool.”

Karime Quets, 23, of San Clemente touched the whale’s skin (it felt like a wetsuit) before snapping a photo.

She wasn’t concerned about the stench it would leave on her fingers.

“You can just wash it off,” she said, shrugging.

Ashley Best brought her kids – Ocie, 5, and Lilly, 3 – to take a few photos and learn about the creature. She figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“They think it’s cool to see the whale,” she said. “But they think it stinks. And now they want to go home.”

Contact the writer:

Leave a Reply