How do you dispose of a giant whale from a beach?

whale in North Berwick
The view of North Berwick was dominated by the 31ft (9m) minke whale carcass.

A minke whale that washed up on an East Lothian beach has now been removed.

The 31ft (9m) whale died when it hit rocks and came ashore at North Berwick on Thursday.

The event brought back memories to Dumbarton folk of their forebears talking about a similar incident at Dumbarton when a whale was washed up on the Clyde shore at the foot of Brucehill.

Since then there has been a sandbank at that point in the River Clyde known locally as the Whale’s Back.

Dumbarton’s whale arrived just before the school holidays on June 21, 1905, when the favourite – or maybe even the only holiday destination for most people was Havoc and the Clydeshore.

It weighted more than two tons and was 17 and a half feet in length.

The Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS) believes the East Lothian whale it was taken to landfill, but said methods of disposing of a whale carcass can vary.

We have an excellent photograph of the Dumbarton whale being transported by two men to the High Street on a horse-drawn flat cart.

The picture was taken near the steps outside Glencairn house where a fishwife, Mary Kelly, is said to have sold herring from Docherty’s boats, which tied up at the Quay.

Whether Mary sold whale steaks for a time thereafter is unknown.

Dr Andrew Brownlow, who runs the scheme, said that a post-mortem exam can reveal a lot about a whale’s life and what influenced its death.

He told BBC Scotland News about some of the options available to local authorities when removing a whale.

Bones in a museum

Minke whale being removed from North Berwick beach
East Lothian Council removed the whale from North Berwick beach

Dr Brownlow said different requirements need to be balanced with making a decision about how to dispose of a carcass.

He said: “You need to remove a dead whale from a public beach so it doesn’t cause distress to people, or begin to leak grease and body fluids into the environment, which are more unpleasant than they are hazardous.

“There are actually very few diseases that we’ve found – and we’ve looked very hard – which can be transmitted from dead carcasses.”

Disposal options include taking the whale to a landfill site, burial on the beach or partial incineration.

“They can be taken away to our laboratories where they are post-mortemed,” Dr Brownlow added.

“The skeleton is then often processed by the Museum of Scotland and added to their collection.

“The soft part goes for disposal in the same way as fallen stock do from farms.”

Return to the sea

minke whale in North Berwick
The minke whale washed up on North Berwick beach on Thursday

Dr Brownlow said that it is important to return as much of the whale as possible back into the marine environment for “nutrient recycling”.

“Simply taking them out of the beach, off the marine environment and incinerating them or taking them to landfill actually robs the marine environment of this really important nutrient source.”

Whale carcasses can bring a dose of life-sustaining nutrients, including manganese, phosphorus, iron, zinc.

“You don’t need very high levels of them but they are very important for cellular processes”, Dr Brownlow added.

“It’s called whale fall – this is mainly thinking about animals of the deep ocean, but when they fall and die and sink to the bottom of the ocean, they form these little nutrient rich islands that can support a huge diversity of life.”

He said that sharks and other scavengers will come and eat the soft tissues of a whale, while other smaller organisms, like worms will feed on the skeleton.

Buried on the beach

North Berwick beach
The area around the whale carcass was cordoned off.

Another way of returning a whale back to the environment can be through burying it on a beach.

“We can bury them on site and that’s often very successful, although that has to be balanced against the backdrop of not creating a public nuisance of having a carcass on an amenity beach,” he said.

Dr Brownlow added that in some circumstances, a stranded whale can be towed back into the sea, although they have to be carefully positioned to avoid becoming a shipping hazard, especially as larger whales remain buoyant.

The fate of the whale tends to depend on two factors: the size of the animal and where it has stranded.

“Some very big whales like fin whales and sei whales, if they strand on some remote island, then they can be left to break down naturally,” Dr Brownlow said.

“It’s amazing the speed with which scavengers, birds in particular can scavenge quite a lot from a whale and within a year or so, you’re often just left with very clean bones and a very healthy marine ecosystem.”

SMASS was set up to understand the causes of stranding for whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, large bodied sharks and even marine turtles.

Dr Brownlow said he believes the minke whale, stranded in North Berwick this week, has been taken to landfill for disposal.

“It’s pretty grim to be honest”, he said. “I’ve been to landfill sites to do the post-mortem and it’s a pretty dismal end to such a magnificent creature,

“It’s a functional end for these animals rather than one that is actually desired, both from the point of view of scientists who have to do the research on them but also the respect to the animal.”

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