Weird Nature

What Happens When Dead Whales Sink To The Bottom Of The Ocean  

Crystal Brackett
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Sadly, hearing about a beached whale isn't out of the ordinary. But how do whales die if their bodies don't end up above sea level? When dead whale bodies wash ashore, you're only seeing one possibility of what could happen after the whale dies.

What happens when whales die is actually a lengthy process featuring scavenging animals, thriving ecosystems, and possible eruptions. Once one of the gigantic mammals reaches the end of its life, there are only two places the body can go - the beach or the bottom of the ocean. When a dead whale remains in the water, it eventually sinks to the bottom of the ocean. These dead whales at the bottom of the ocean take a very long time to decompose, but their remains give life to numerous species and generate entire ecosystems. It's a little sad, and definitely gross, but beautiful in a bizarre way, too.

The Whale Passes Away
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Photo: Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Whales have an incredibly long lifespan; depending on the species, they can live for over 100 years. However, that life can be cut short by humans. Fishing, accidents, and pollution cause a large percentage of whale deaths.

Of course, whales can pass from natural causes, too. They may succumb to old age, or fall victim to their own bodies. Whales are susceptible to parasites, and they can cause fatal problems.

Decomposition Begins Immediately
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Photo: Bering Land Bridge National Preserve/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

After death, a whale's body begins to break down. Cell tissue deteriorates, bacteria from inside and outside of the body begins to eat away at the tissues and liquefy organs, and fermentation occurs.

The entire decomposition phase causes a build-up of byproducts and noxious gases within the whale.

Gasses Accumulate Inside The Body
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Photo: John Nathan Cobb/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The noxious gasses created during the whale's decomposition create airy pockets of CO2, methane, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia within its body. This causes the whale to bloat dramatically, and builds very intense pressure - an estimated three to five atmospheres of it, in fact.

Often, the gas slowly leaks out through weak points in the whale's tissue, but it can also linger for some time.

The Body Might Float On The Water's Surface

Sometimes, the gas build-up in the whale's body can cause it to become buoyant. As long as the gas remains, the body will continue to float along the surface of the water. That makes it an easy target for scavenging fish and birds, who will begin to pick flesh off the body.