It's a sad fact of life, but it happens more frequently than you'd think. Mass whale death is a phenomenon the world is seeing more frequently. And when whales pass away, they beach themselves.
Another sad fact of life is that, much like humans, beached whales' bodies decompose and sometimes explode. Why do whales burst, and what exactly happens? There are lots of reasons - most of which have to do with the science happening inside their bodies. When this occurs, the results can be quite literally explosive. Exploding beached whales is not a pretty sight, folks, but it can be entertaining (unless you're standing on the beach).
Understanding why whales beach is integral to understanding why they burst. Usually whales pass away in their natural habitat, and generally have a positive impact, speaking in ecological terms. One good-sized whale can provide nourishment for multiple colonies of deep-sea creatures and communities. Too large for most scavengers to fully consume, whale corpses end up sinking and their tremendous bulk takes them as far down as they can go, where they become home to any number of life forms found on the ocean floor.
If the whale is sick, off course, or just happens to pass away for whatever reason and gets caught up by the incoming tide, it doesn’t take much to bring the massive carcass to shore. Sometimes beached whales are still alive when they beach. In fact, they inadvertently go ashore and are unable to get back to enough water to regain buoyancy. In the past, random strandings from a group would cause a single beaching, but whales are both incredibly social and incredibly loyal creatures. As a result, incidences of mass strandings have been increasing as healthy whales may beach themselves attempting to cling to weaker or off-course pod-mates who've been stranded.
Whales are generally considered some of the largest mammals on Earth. Blue whales, for instance, can grow in excess of 100 feet long and 150 tons. In water, this immense weight is supported by the buoyancy of the water itself. On dry land, this weight alone endangers whales due to the pressure exerted on their internal organs. A whale’s thick covering of blubber can also lead to dehydration and the lack of the cool temperature of the water can cause heat extremes for the animals.
Additionally, outside of their natural habitat, the inability to procure food can lead to malnourishment for victims of cetacean stranding. Most whale species require between 2% and 10% of their body weight in food per day. To use the example of the blue whale, dietary needs can be upwards of 40 million krill (small shrimp-like creatures) daily.
Once the whale has passed away, the question of how to deal with a carcass that can weigh upwards of 50 tons becomes an issue. It is worth noting that deceased whales are pretty much going to burst anyway. Decomposing carcasses, in general, have a tendency to erupt when the gases produced by decomposition and putrefaction build up and become too much for the body to contain. It’s just that when the creature in question weighs many thousands of pounds, the effect is a little more impressive than it would be for a possum from the side of the road.
The exit points tend to be what they always are, the, uh, fore and aft orifices, and most of the gases escape through them, but may become blocked internally. As the animal tissues dry out, fermentation also occurs. Since whale hides tend to be quite thick and durable, the meeting of fermentation and putrefaction can combine to create unsafe levels of compressed gases within the body. As the external tissues break down, the possibility of an intense rupture increases. Once the membrane is weak enough, the whole thing can burst.
On November 9, 1970, the picturesque little beach town of Florence, OR, had a problem. An eight-ton, 45-foot deceased sperm whale washed up onto its scenic shores, and the townspeople were trying to figure out what to do with it. The gigantic carcass cooked in the sun, and the smell hit the town hard. Town officials decided to blow the thing to pieces, and let the local waterfowl clean up the resulting mess.
Engineer George Thornton was unsure exactly how much dynamite was needed to disintegrate the thing. A visiting businessman named Walt Umenhofer got wind of the plan and approached Thornton. Umenhofer, a WWII veteran, and warned the engineer that he was using too much. Thornton ignored his advice. The blast was spectacular, and the milling spectators were impressed. But the event was quickly overshadowed by the thousands of pounds of whale entrails that came raining down on the idyllic little town moments later. Reporter Paul Linnman described the scene in the book he wrote after covering the story: “Explosions in the movies usually look like a blast of fire and smoke; this one more resembled a mighty burst of tomato juice.” To make matters worse, Umenhofer’s car was totaled by a piece of blubber the size of a small truck tire.
If you're brave enough, here's a video of the eruption.