Sperm whales and the natural phenomenon of 'explosive whales'

Dead sperm whales often float to shore. In addition to the decomposed tissue mentioned above, beach managers fear that sharks, especially the great white shark

by Lorenzo Ciotti
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Sperm whales and the natural phenomenon of 'explosive whales'

Sperm whales are not the easiest of whales to observe, due to their long submersion periods and their ability to travel long distances underwater. However, due to the distinctive appearance and large size of this whale, its observation is becoming very popular.

Sperm whale watchers often use hydrophones to listen for the whales' cracks and locate them before they surface. Popular spots for sperm whale watching include picturesque Kaikoura on New Zealand's South Island, where the continental shelf is so narrow that whales can be observed from the coast, Andenes and Tromsø in arctic Norway, and the Azores, where they can be seen all year round, unlike other whales, which can only be seen during migrations.

Dominica is believed to be the only Caribbean island with a year-round resident pod of females and calves. In July 2003 a huge indistinct mass of white meat was found on a beach on the coast of southern Chile. The 12-meter long mass of gelatinous tissue led to believe that an unknown giant octopus had been discovered.

Instead, researchers at the Natural History Museum of Santiago concluded that the mass was actually the inside of a sperm whale, a conclusion deduced from observation of the dermal glands. When a sperm whale dies, its internal organs decompose until the animal is little more than a runny mass trapped under the skin.

The skin can eventually tear, causing the internal mass to come out and eventually beach. Dead sperm whales often float to shore. In addition to the decomposed tissue mentioned above, beach managers fear that sharks, especially the great white shark, may be attracted to the beach by the rotting flesh and pose a potential danger to swimmers.

For this reason, dead sperm whales are often towed offshore before they beach. This happened twice in May 2004, once off Oahu, Hawaii, where a dead sperm whale was towed 35 miles out to sea, but returned to shore two days later.

Perhaps to research the most famous story about a sperm whale one has to go back to 1970, when a decomposing animal weighing 7.25 tons and 13.7 m long washed ashore in Oregon. For some time it was a curiosity for local residents.

Since the beach is a public transit right, it was up to members of the Oregon Department of Transportation to take care of this. They filled the animal with half a ton of dynamite. On Friday, November 12, the dynamite was detonated, but the blast did not head towards the Pacific as expected.

No one was injured, but a car was destroyed by the rain of grease. The spectators were covered in smelly bits of dead sperm whale. In January 2004 a much more striking event took place in the spotlight of the global media. A dead sperm whale measuring 17m long and weighing 50 tons washed up on a beach in Tainan City, Taiwan.

As it was being transported to the city's university, the pressure of decomposition gases inside the body caused an explosion. No one was injured, but blood and viscera spilled over some cars and overwhelmed pedestrians.