Can whales really explode? A (stinking) Whale of a Tale!

craigwhite
18 June 2014

Above photo courtesy of Fred Sheppard, Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland & Labrador

Have you ever noticed that some events seem to capture everyone’s attention? Take for example the nine blue whales that were crushed to death in heavy ice off the western coast of Newfoundland and Labrador in April 2014. A few weeks later, a couple of them washed up on shore in neighbouring communities. Within a few days of being reported in the local media, this was a top news story around the world. Why did this event get so much attention? Was it because these animals are endangered and that the entire population in the North Atlantic is less than 250 individuals? Was it because the loss of nine members from this population, which has only seen 22 births in the last 35 years, will have a huge impact on this population? Could it have been the fact that three of the dead blue whales were females and their deaths also meant the loss of young they might have born in later years? Maybe it was the sheer size of the animals that had washed up on shore. After all, as the largest animal on Earth, each did weigh about 100 tonnes and measured about 25 metres long (the length of two school buses). Maybe.

Did you know? Blue whales are found worldwide. Currently there are only about 5,000 blue whales, down from about 180,000 in the late 1800s.

But just maybe it was because someone suggested that as these huge mammals begin to rot, gases will build up inside their bodies. As these gases continue to build up it might cause the bodies to explode, much as an overinflated balloon would. When you check the number of headlines with “exploding whale” in them it might lead you to make this assumption. Just think of it; blood, rotting guts and stinking blubber erupting in an explosion that sprayed the people and surrounding town. These sensational-type headlines certainly fit in with the commonly held view that, for news media decision-makers, “if it bleeds, it leads” (i.e., the more horrific, emotional, gory events are shown first to hook the viewers into the newscast).

Did you know? A blue whale’s heart is about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and pumps about 6 tonnes of blood throughout its body. The heart beats about 10 times a minute and pumps about 270 litres with each beat.

Of course it helps if there is some scientific basis for the claims being made. When animals die, bacteria do begin to decompose (break down) their internal organs and tissues as well as any remaining food in their gut. The by-products of animal tissue decomposition include certain gases, such as methane and some hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. Unless these gases have somewhere to go, they will build up inside the dead animal, causing parts of the body to inflate. This is certainly the case with a dead whale. The skin and blubber are so thick the gases are trapped inside. As the bacteria are digesting their food (tissues), they also generate heat. Add to this the fact that these dead animals are laying outside as the weather gets warmer and that as gases heat up they expand. All of this provides a good scientific basis for the speculation of imminent explosion.

As early as the 18th century, scientists observed a relationship between the volume, temperature and pressure of gases. It was observed that the more gas inside a closed container the greater the pressure on the walls of the container. If you increase the volume of the container, the pressure of the gas will reduce and vice versa. It was also observed that when gases heat up inside a closed container they exert increased pressure on the sides of the container. Eventually the pressure of the gases may cause the container to break and release the built-up gases instantly (i.e., explode).

So what do you call a dead whale lying out on a hot day? A methane gas-making machine inside of a closed container. The skin and blubber of the whale does have some flexibility. It will stretch somewhat in response to the build up of the gas being produced. However, as more and more gas is produced and as the temperature increases, the pressure on the walls of this ‘container’ will be under more and more stress. The skin can only expand so much before it will crack or tear open. If this happens, it is predicted that all the gas (and associated blood, liquefied tissues, etc.) will be released (explode) all at once.

Did you know? An explosion is a rapid expansion of a gas. It is the impact of the shock waves that cause the damage.

A video of a smaller sperm whale in the Faroe Islands did show a gush of rotting innards and a spray of liquefied tissues when a researcher made a cut through the skin and blubber. It wasn’t an explosion in the popular sense of the word but it was a pretty spectacular squirt of rotting material that went about 10 metres. The rotten muck was pushed out by the pressure of the built up gases. Aatish Bhatia of wired.com (see reference below) calculated that the liquid components shot out at a speed of 17.7 metres/second (70 km/h)!

If you have the stomach for it, you can view the gross and graphic video here:

Graphic video: Dead sperm whale explodes as biologist cuts open (Video – 1:23 min.)

However, such extreme cases of exploding whales are few and far between. Most scientists agree that an explosion is unlikely to occur as the skin will gradually form small tears which will release some of the built-up gas. Explosions are more likely to occur due to human interventions or actions. For example, the skin could be punctured by an object or it might break at a weak spot if someone walks on the carcass.

One famous case where a dead whale did actually explode happened on a beach near Florence, Oregon, in 1970, but as you will see, it had a bit of help:

Exploding Whale - Whale Of A Tale (Video – 3:43 min.)

So, if you come upon a dead whale, rotting on a beach, you might want to consider staying away. Scientists who do research on dead whales say that you can’t wash the smell of the rotting flesh off your skin and have to wait for it to go away on its own. Further, if you get any of it on your clothes, your only option is to throw them away. So, while the actual danger of a whale explosion is slim, being on the receiving side of a spray of rotted, liquefied tissues would certainly ruin your day!

In March 2017 ROM opened its exhibit of the reassembled skeleton of this whale carcass. The display, dubbed “Out of the depths: The blue whale story” makes use of the skeleton as part of an education program to help people understand a bit more about the world’s largest and, most mysterious, animals. 

Blue whale heart plasticized

Also in the exhibit is the whale’s heart, preserved through the process of plastination. The heart is next to a Smart Car to demonstrate that it is almost as big as the car!

A young polar bear

It has been a long trip from Trout River, NL to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto but the whale, nicknamed “Blue”, will now help contribute to our understanding of this magnificent species!

References

Newfoundland’s dead (but still unexploded) blue whale headed to Toronto’s ROM

Dead Blue Whale In Newfoundland Might Not Explode: Expert

Dead blue whales washing ashore in western Newfoundland

What’s the pressure inside an exploding whale?

NOAA fisheries: Office of Protected Resources

Learn More

Why a dead whale is so important to science

craigwhite

I am a former junior and senior high school biology and chemistry teacher and science curriculum consultant. I have always been interested in science, particularly biology and ecology. As a child I was always asking “why?”, taking things apart to see how they worked (sometimes getting them back together), and exploring my local environment. I teach undergraduate science education courses where one of my academic interests is how we address the Nature of Science in classrooms to ensure students develop a true understanding of what science “is”, and the role science plays in our lives.  

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