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Petrolia's Whale Tale

What happens when a sperm whale washes up on your beach

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Jeff Jacobsen carves the stranded sperm whale on petrolia's mattole beach. Photo by Jenoa Briar-Bonpane
  • Jeff Jacobsen carves the stranded sperm whale on petrolia's mattole beach. Photo by Jenoa Briar-Bonpane

Standing five-foot-seven and wielding a two-foot whale-flensing blade, ecstatic marine mammologist Jeff Jacobsen couldn't see over the towering head of the stranded sperm whale he was carving last Tuesday. Though difficult for a lay person to discern where the abdomen of a whale even begins, veteran flenser Jacobsen definitively leaned on the wooden handle, burying the tip of the blade into what appeared to be its belly.

The moment his massive knife penetrated the nearly nine centimeters of blubber, a foghorn bellow emitted from the gash to announce a stinky release of postmortem pressure. The sound was deep and resonant and lasted for a full two minutes. Reverent volunteer biologists from Humboldt State's Vertebrate Museum and curious locals stepped back to avoid the ensuing wave of foul smelling air that rolled up the beach.

Since these animals fall under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is illegal for anyone to remove or possess any part of the whale. Penalties include jail time and a $10,000 fine. The HSU Vertebrate Museum holds an exclusive permit allowing it to collect samples and look for a smoking gun to determine cause of death. This time, the research team came up empty-handed. Finding the stomach empty, there was no obvious ingested toxin that might explain the 10-15 year old whale's death. DNA screening for toxins and pathogens may reveal more about where the whale had traveled and what he'd been eating.

Landing just south of the river mouth on Petrolia's Mattole Beach amidst so many miles of pristine coastline, it's remarkable that the 32-foot cadaver happened to get stuck at the end of the short path that leads from the parking lot to the beach. For most Petrolia residents, this conspicuous stranding created a serendipitous opportunity to glimpse the world's largest toothed mammal. Though the pleasure of tourists isn't a high priority on the minds of most Petrolians, one can't help but imagine that the oozing carcass might be less enchanting to road-weary visitors, eager for the fresh scent of salty air and unspoiled vacation landscape.

Known for their deep diving abilities (one to two miles) and highly evolved sonar structures, sperm whales are designed to find and eat giant squid. Circular suction marks left by enormous squid were clearly visible on the head and back of the whale discovered in Petrolia — apparent scars from one of these legendary deep-sea battles. Despite having the largest noses on the planet, sperm whales have little or no sense of smell and instead use their bulbous snouts to make sounds to find and stun prey. Sperm whales stay within 20-30 degrees of the equator, except for adolescent males who make solo excursions northward to gorge and grow (ultimately more than 1.5 times the length of females) before returning south to play the mating game.

Grey whale strandings in California are not uncommon, according to Joe Cordaro, Wildlife Biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service. The stranding of a sperm whale, however, is a truly rare event. Oddly enough, another one turned up on the beach in Crescent City a few weeks ago, dead after eating 50 pounds of plastic fish netting. Two sperm whales in one month, says Cordaro, is not necessarily cause for alarm, but "if a third one comes up, I'd raise my antenna and want to do a more thorough examination."

Now that the scientists have gone back to town and the blubber has begun to settle, so to speak, the question remains as to what should be done with 13 stinking tons of decaying mammal on Mattole Beach.

Turns out that nothing brings a community together quite like a beached whale. As with most topics in Petrolia, opinions and rumors are plentiful and diverse. Let the scavengers do their job," says Ken Young, a board member of the Community Center, the Mattole Restoration Council and the Historical Society. he'll say, "It's the natural way, it's less expensive, and it's sustainable."

Go down the hill a bit and Fire Captain Chris Gilda will point out that the whale skeleton, if preserved, would make a great mentor project for the high school students. Cross the road and Tamar Burris, preschool teacher, says she'll "support anything that brings something positive to the community." Keith Leatherwood, surf tour guide, suggests that a bulldozer should be used to "pile driftwood around the carcass and then burn it." Longtime resident and Salmon Group Board member David Simpson feels the respectful thing to do is to bury the whale intact and then unearth it for educational use. Others muse about what a productive resource the rotting blubber could be to fuel pickups, tractors and lamps, or even to lubricate chainsaws.

Then, there's always the option of exploding the carcass with 20 cases of dynamite, as was done by the Oregon's Highway Division circa 1970 when a 45-foot whale washed up on the shores of Florence. The resulting rain of car-smashing blubber chunks prevented this method from winning any awards.

Jacobsen reminds that whale meat is a coveted delicacy for great whites sharks. Even if buried, Jacobsen expects the whale's oils will continue to attract sharks for one to two years. This is troubling news for the area's handful of dedicated surfers like Leatherwood (also the son of renowned whale researcher Steve Leatherwood), who admits the shark issue will be "on his mind." Gilda, another inveterate surf rider, guesses that he "won't be surfing the mouth for a while."

In a bigger town like Crescent City, decisions about what to do with a beached whale fall somewhat naturally to local leadership. In their case, the process of dismantling and burying the whale was a joint effort of the chamber of commerce and the Surfrider Foundation. In a place like Petrolia, however, where there is no local government and, as one local resident quips, "the role of mayor is a fluid one," how such a decision will be made is anyone's guess.

While there is a scattered chorus of Petrolia residents who like the idea of burying the giant mammal and unearthing it later for public display, the nitty gritty of making it happen poses a challenge and, as Simpson offers, "it's possible that such a project is beyond the capacity of our community."

Amidst the swirling possibilities, a few things are clear. HSU's Vertebrate Museum currently has the only permit to handle the whale. Now that they have gathered their samples, NOAA's Cordaro says whoever owns the beach can decide whether to bury the whale or let nature take its course. Since this whale lies in repose within the King Range National Conservation Area, it falls under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management. "In most cases, we let the natural process take hold," said Cathy Stangle, Assistant Field Manager at BLM's Arcata office. "Though we're not opposed to burying it, we need some idea of the plan." (She added that the bureau has no funding to offer, but said that it might be interested in creating some type of interpretive center were the skeleton to be preserved for later display.)

Jacobsen, who has "articulated" other whales, including Crescent City's, laid out the basics. A group of 10-15 volunteers with "tuna fish sandwiches, knives, knife sharpeners, a four-wheel-drive vehicle or two and a set of clothes they don't mind throwing away" would need to spend a couple of days peeling away skin and blubber, removing spermaceti and carving the carcass up before dragging the remains into a big hole.

And so the talk continues. Maybe the school will spearhead the project and display the whale on its campus. Perhaps the guy with the backhoe will dig a big hole and the whole town will come out for a whale disemboweling potluck. Then again, it's possible that the whale will stay where it landed, to decompose gradually and feed the lucky scavengers who live nearby.

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