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

Updated August 2, 2019 351.4k views12 items

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 Could Explode

    Photo: David Wright/Stranded Whale at Barrow Haven / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    The gaseous pressure that builds up inside a whale's body can actually cause the corpse to explode. The vented gas can propel organs and other bodily waste out of the body at extreme speeds, covering anything nearby with flesh and viscera.

  • It Becomes A Whale Fall

    Photo: US Government / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domains

    As bloating in the whale subsides, the body begins to slip beneath the surface, creating a "whale fall." The term refers to the body that is now drifting toward the ocean floor. If this occurs in the shallows, scavengers will prey upon the body almost immediately, and the warm waters will greatly speed up the decomposition process.

    However, in deeper waters, the deceased whale decomposes at a slower rate. The body might sink all the way to the bottom before losing much of its flesh.

  • Roaming Scavengers Strip The Carcass

    Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    While the whale's body still has meat, a colorful array of scavengers will pick its bones clean. The vast corpse provides food for animals like sleeper sharks and hagfish. On average, these hungry wandering fish will eat hundreds of pounds of meat from the whale per day.

    They can strip the body bare within a few months, though larger whales might take a few years to consume.

  • Scientists Sometimes Get In On The Action

    Photo: NOAA Photo Library / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    A completely different type of scavenger a whale's body might encounter: scientists. The scientific community still doesn't know that much about whales, as they live in some of the deepest parts of the oceans and are extremely mobile. Whale carcasses give scientists a chance to take get samples for further study.

    These necropsies help scientists understand the living versions of whales - data that would be nearly impossible to get otherwise.