Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A whale of a tale

It’s not every day that you see a headline that reads “Dead Sperm Whale No Longer For Sale on eBay,” so it did, of course, capture my attention.

It seems that this has been prime season for whale wash ups on the shores of our neighbor to the North. And one small town in Newfoundland was having a hard time figuring out just what to do with theirs.

Mayor Peter Fenwick [of Cape St. George] put the beached 40-foot whale up on eBay and was actually getting some bids, Canada.com reported. After opening at 99 cents, interested parties were pushing the price past $2,000. Unfortunately, eBay did not appreciate Fenwick’s creative problem-solving and now shoppers will have to find their blubber and bones elsewhere. The auction site took the page down because selling a dead whale went against eBay’s rules, the story said. (Source: boston.com)

No, there is not a specific regulation prohibiting sale of a dead sperm whale. But there is a rule against auctioning off “"items made from marine mammals regardless of when the product was made".

Not that a whale carcass is exactly an item made from a marine mammal. While it is an item, it’s a marine mammal, not an item made from one. But I suppose that I’m just being nitpicky here.

Personally, I think it was pretty ingenious to come up with the idea of selling the dead whale on eBay.

It does, however, raise a few questions.

How do you cover shipping and handling?

What sort of carrier would take it?

And what do you do with a rotting whale corpse, once you have it in your possession?

Oh, I suppose for this last question there are a few things you could use it for: the teeth could be used for scrimshaw, and the teeth for whale-bone corsets. (Although I note that neither of these marine mammalian items could be sold on eBay.)

But I don’t know how long oil lasts in a dead whale – or who’s using whale-oil lamps these days. (Maybe the same folks etching scrimshaw and cinching themselves into whale-bone corsets.) And I would think that rotting blubber would be even more disgusting to eat than fresh blubber.

Unfortunately for the mayor and townsfolk of Cape St. George, the Royal Canadian Mounties weren’t going to be Dudley-Dorighting to their rescue. In fact, the Canadian government warned the town against going through with the sale, as “the sale of a sperm whale or its parts is illegal.”

My sympathies are with the town, which had the ill-luck to have a whale corpse wash up on their shores. I’m sure they’re thinking if the current had been a bit swifter, the wind a bit more southerly, this would have been someone else’s problem.

Instead, it’s theirs.

It’s also been a problem for a few other Canadian towns this spring.

In Trout River, Newfoundland, the fear was that their whale would explode on them.

For a while, the eighty-foot corpse had expanded to twice its living size, bloated with foul-smelling ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane gases produced by bacteria on a feeding frenzy. The pressure of the expanding gas might have continued to build, turning the former whale into an increasingly stressed balloon full of blubber and guts. But, anticlimax: Trout River’s town clerk, though still sounding harried by this unwanted arrival on her shores, told CTV that the carcass had “deflated” a bit. Don Bradshaw, a journalist in Newfoundland, tweeted a photo on Thursday showing that the whale had shrunken considerably. A scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada downplayed the danger of a whale bomb, though he suggested, nonetheless, that people might want to stop climbing on it. (Source: New Yorker blog.)

Note to self: never, ever, ever under any circumstances, jump on a bloated whale carcass.

The day was saved for Trout River, and for neighboring Rocky Harbour, when the Royal Ontario Museum promised to come in and extract the bones, so that they could have skeletons. The rest of the remains (blubber and all) would be trucked to local landfills. (Lucky them.)

Of course, it’s not just Canada that experiences whale strandings. Between 2008 and 2013, 648 (living and dead) stranded whales were reported in the U.S.

Seven of those were blue whales, which are the biggest animals ever known to have lived on the planet.

Inquiring minds – at least the inquiring mind of New Yorker blogger Ian Crouch – wanted to learn just what the options are when a whale gets stranded on your patch. So he asked a biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For one, you can just leave it in situ, and let nature take its course. This option, of course, works best when there aren’t people around whose delicate nostrils might be bothered by the smell.

Or you can bury it. This means going way more than six feet under.

…trench needs to be dug at least a few meters deeper than the height of the whale, in order to keep the carcass from resurfacing.

Then there’s the “chop it up and truck it away” or “float it out and sink it”options.

If the latter choice is taken:

To overcome buoyancy, the body is weighed down, most often with metal. Frequently, the body cavity is filled with heavy material—scrap metal, heavy chains, train wheels.

If you happen to have a few used train wheels handy.

But whether you’re in the US or in Canada,

…the financial responsibility for the removal of washed-up whales falls to the municipality where they lie.

Thus, for the mayor of Cape St. George, it was a matter of stuckness:

Fenwick told CBC News the town wasn't looking to make a big profit on the carcass, and just wanted to get rid of the whale.

"Our problem is, it's the responsibility of a town when a whale washes up on the beach in an incorporated area," he said.

"We were told by the relevant people that it was our whale, we got to dispose of it."

Fenwick said the town tried to find local fisherman to drag the carcass out to rot in an isolated area, but there wasn't appropriate equipment available for the task. (Source: CBC)

Poor man! Too bad the eBay option was a non-starter.

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