Monday, November 20, 2006

Scientists not done with whale carcass yet

Just because I think this is cool and I can't wait to see the results:

Seattle Times staff reporter

Enlarge this photo


A dead fin whale discovered floating near Everett on Nov. 8 will be weighed down and sunk off Friday Harbor later this month.

Confronted with a rotting whale carcass on the beach in 1970, officials in Florence, Ore., hauled in 20 cases of dynamite and lit the fuse.

The resulting rain of blubber chunks smashed a car a quarter-mile away, sent onlookers fleeing for cover and yielded one of the Internet's most side-splitting video clips.

Biologists at the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Laboratories have a better idea for disposing of a 54-foot fin whale that turned up dead in the Port of Everett earlier this month.

They plan to attach 3 tons of metal railroad wheels to the corpse and sink it off the coast of San Juan Island.

But because these are scientists, that's just the beginning of the story.

The real goal is to study the whale's decomposition at a level of detail that would make most people gag.

Using an underwater drone equipped with a video camera, the researchers will document the types of fish, crabs and other creatures that feed on the carcass, and the role it plays as a food bonanza in the marine ecosystem. Divers will also visit the site for an up-close view of the putrefaction.


Video of the exploding Oregon whale:

In about two years, when the bones are picked clean, the skeleton will be retrieved for display as part of a marine mammal exhibit at the UW's Burke Museum of Natural History.

"What we're re-creating in a somewhat artificial manner is something that happens occasionally in nature and may turn out to be a very interesting ecological phenomenon," said UW marine ecologist David Duggins.

Not to mention very cool to those who like such things.

"I'm anxious to see it firsthand," said Duggins, who plans to dive to the carcass as soon as possible.

This isn't the first time researchers have tracked whale decomposition.

A University of Hawaii biologist who will collaborate on the project specializes in what he calls "whale falls." When a dead behemoth falls to the sea floor, it can radically alter a world where light doesn't penetrate and food is normally in short supply. In some cases, carcasses can seed living communities that persist for up to 80 years and include worms that feed only on whale bones.

A whale carcass that Duggins and his colleagues sank in 300 feet of water off San Juan Island several years ago attracted a massive aggregation of sea life.

"I saw densities of fish higher than I've ever seen in the San Juans — just huge clouds," Duggins said.

He's been waiting for another candidate carcass ever since.

This time, the experiment will be conducted in water only about 100 feet deep, making it easier for divers to reach it. The scientists hope the shallower depth will also make it possible to collect the bones and bring them to the surface when all the flesh has been stripped away.

"This is really a new method for preparing a skeleton for exhibit," said Jim Kenagy, curator of mammals for the Burke Museum.

Normally, marine-mammal carcasses destined for display are buried in sand to decompose, a process that can take five years or longer. Digging up and transporting tons of bones, including skulls up to 10 feet long, requires backhoes, cranes and trucks. Then comes the painstaking job of scraping away remaining bits of muscle and sinew.

"It's a very costly procedure," Kenagy said.

The male fin whale that could wind up at the Burke had a short life and brutal ending. The juvenile had been entangled in rope that cut into its jaw and kept it from opening its mouth to feed. It was emaciated when it was apparently struck and killed by a ship and dragged into the harbor at Everett. It was partially decomposed by the time it surfaced.

Duggins is waiting for calm weather to sink the carcass.

He and his crew towed the animal from Everett to San Juan Island on Tuesday — almost 36 years to the day after the infamous Oregon whale explosion.

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