Encounter with a Dead Sperm Whale

(Warning: The photos and descriptions in this post are graphic and may be disturbing. Be advised.)

I had to go see it. It was news. It had happened in one of my favorite hiking/walking spots. And I love whales, anyway. I had never been up close to a real whale before, except last summer when I went up to Newport, Oregon with my family and was lucky enough to be within 100 feet or so of a diving pod of gray whales. But then, all I got to see were a few brief glimpses of them surfacing and then diving again, their graceful flukes displayed for a second or so before re-submerging.

I heard about it from my daughter, whose high school science teacher had told her about it in class: a whale had washed up on Sharp Park Beach in Pacifica. Scientists from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito and the California Academy of Sciences had come out to investigate, and to do a necropsy.

They found the whale on April 14, a Tuesday. The brief news blip said the whale was beached at Mori Point—the site of an old inn, turned speakeasy in the 30s, that had since burned down. I wasn’t able to go see it until Sunday, the 19th. I drove over as early in the morning as I could, arriving in the gray mist of 10 a.m. Mori Point is at the end of a several-hundred-foot stretch of beach and embankment running along Sharp Park Golf Course, accessed from a parking lot at the north end. I stepped onto the beach and looked toward the other end to see whether I could make out the whale. There were a handful of walkers in the crisp morning air, dressed in layers as they performed their habitual workout. I peered out toward the large black rock marking the end of the point, where a 200-foot bluff rises up from the beach. I could see no sign of the large black carcass that had bobbed around in the news footage. Maybe I’m too late, I thought; the scientists may have taken the whale back to their labs at the marine center for analysis. Or perhaps the crashing waves of the rising morning tide had already taken it back to sea. No matter. I needed a good walk in the fresh air, and this, after all, was one of my favorite walks. I stepped onto the gravel walking path that parallels the beach. About a quarter of the way down the path, I heard the wheels of a vehicle on the gravel behind me. I turned around to see a U.S. Park Ranger truck slowly making its way to the point. I wonder what business they have here, I thought, as the ranger slowly passed me. It gave me hope that maybe the whale was still there, and they were checking up on it in some way.

Whale against cliffDog & Whale blubber

[The whale described in the news blogs was a sperm whale—the species chosen as the object of Captain Ahab’s obsessive vendetta in Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick. As it turns out, sperm whales have never exhibited any hostility toward mankind, and were severely hunted for their spermaceti oil, considered the finest oil for ointments, creams, pomades, and candles. Interestingly, they were hunted almost as much in the period following World War II as they were in the 19th Century, during both periods of which their populations were cut to approximately 30%. They are now considered a vulnerable species, as their numbers are slowly recovering.]

As I approached the end of the beach, I looked down at the foot of the cliff. I could see what looked like a long, grayish-pinkish rock formation along its bottom. A woman and her dog were walking around it, seeming to linger as they looked at it. As I got closer, and the pair finally went on their way, I could see the formation more clearly. No, it wasn’t rocks; it had the vague shape of a whale or large fish. Was this it? As I stepped down a small path onto the beach and got nearer, I could see that it was indeed what remained of a once majestic sperm whale, caught between an outcropping of rocks and the bottom of the cliff wall. It was laid out with its head pointing to the water, the length of its right side fully visible to beach walkers. I could see the massive fluke semi-buried in the sand at the other end. While its shape was generally whale-like, its skin seemed to be entirely gone, exposing the pink and gray mass of its flesh and inner organs—the work of the scientists and their necropsy.

Whale headWhale Onlookers


But what was grotesquely evident, even before getting close to the whale’s cadaver, were the huge, yard-long, one-to-two-foot-thick chunks of flesh, unceremoniously flung and scattered along the beach. Crows and gulls lighted on them to peck at a bit of blubber. Dogs regarded them gingerly. Apparently, the men of science had no sense of neatness or propriety. The small, picturesque beach at Mori Point looked like a battle zone, bespeaking a crude disregard not only for the creature that had been so callously butchered, but also for the people who regularly use and enjoy the beach, now defiled with this carnage.

The small, picturesque beach at Mori Point looked like a battle zone, bespeaking a crude disregard not only for the creature that had been so callously butchered, but also for the people who regularly use and enjoy the beach.

Looking again at the whale, I could see that on the side exposed to the beach, about half of the flesh—not just skin but tissue as well— was ripped away from it, and the grayish-pinkish color was the exposed, raw insides. The entire side of the animal that I could see was decomposing, drooping dejectedly into the elements. The jawline, abutting in a characteristic cetacean point, was pinkish-red and grayish-white, the thin bottom jaw having been removed. It was almost surreal. Grayish shapes that looked like sandbags were stacked in the middle of the creature’s body. Could they have been put there to weigh the animal down so it wouldn’t float away while they were taking tissue samples? As I came closer, I saw them buoyed and rocked by the riplets of tide that began to wash in around the huge corpse: they were massive intestines, reticulated in smooth, grayish folds. The smell was there, but not overpowering in the cool air. I felt a great sadness at the death of this noble, intelligent, social animal, likely caused by human insensitivity. I remembered hearing that the sound waves emitted while searching for offshore oil deposits are devastating to whales’ navigational sonar, and increasingly cause whale beachings and deaths. In fact, in the latest issue of the UK magazine New Scientist, whales fatally beached by human-generated noise pollution have been discovered to have not just ear damage, but brain hemorrhages. How sad a commentary on human insensitivity and destructiveness.

When I looked at the side of the poor beast that faced the rocks, I saw that only half of the skin and flesh had been removed on that side. I was troubled to see a tag spray-painted the length of the remaining skin, from left flipper to tail: “East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club.” What glory could they hope to find in further desecrating this poor creature’s body?

I took a lot of pictures of the poor beast, out of curiosity, scientific enquiry, and a need to understand. The tide was beginning to come in almost immediately after I arrived, so I had to work quickly. I took videos and even photographed a man who wanted his portrait next to the whale. I was so engrossed in my task that a small wave that lapped ashore got my shoes and the bottom of my pant-legs wet, with blood-tinged water.

As I turned to go, I was again confronted by the rectangular cubes of whale flesh scattered across the beach.

Turning away from the whale’s body, I looked at a low cliff dropping down from the embankment. There was a makeshift crucifix there, seemingly a memorial to the whale. But upon closer inspection, it turned out to commemorate a dog. “Best dog in the world,” it said, “We love you.”

The death of a dog, I thought, gets more concern and compassion than the death of our mysterious, maligned, magnificent ocean cousin. And as far as defiling the whale’s body goes, or general insensitivity, I don’t think the scientists behaved with any more class or basic manners than did the East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club.

Dead Crabs at Linda Mar Beach

Dead Crab 1

One of my favorite places to go for a brief get-away from the city is Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica. At the north end are rocks where, at low tide, you can see living starfish, mussels, sea urchins, pretty mother-of pearl shells, olive shells, limpets, and tons of tiny little hermit crabs running around in other creatures’ shells. On our beach strolls, my family and I have often seen crab fishermen posted right along the beach, with their lines in the surf, fishing for Dungeness crabs. If they are under a certain size, they throw them back into the water, because there is a legal size limit to what they can take. It’s not uncommon to see one or two dead crabs along the shore, who, for whatever reason, did not make it back into the water.

IMG_3709 IMG_3706          IMG_3699

IMG_3700But last week, while tide-pooling among the rocks, my daughter and I noticed a dead crab sitting on a rock. It was about 5 inches wide, and had probably been placed there by another beach comber who had found it on the ground. Then, as we started to search for the familiar tide-pool denizens, I noticed another, smaller, dead crab, floating in a tide pool, missing a leg. How sad, I thought. Then my daughter told me that there were a whole bunch of crabs in another tide pool. I went to look, expecting to see hermit crabs, but instead, I was shocked to find dozens of dead Dungeness debris littering the tide.

The other animals seemed alright (except for a IMG_3703maroonish piece of what looked like dead jellyfish that sat on a rock). I saw a part of what looked like a pink star, partly obscured, under a rock. I was heartened to find myriads of my little hermit crab buddies scurrying around in the shallow pools. Lots of opened small mussel shells, iridescent blue and pink inside, evidenced that the seagulls had been eating well.

I am still mystified about the preponderance of crab remains… was there a bumper crop of them that had been frenziedly fished, the plentiful rejects left for the gulls? Or is there something in the water that is toxic to them, killing them off by the dozens?