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A 60,000-Pound Problem


We're going to take a few minutes now to examine the dilemma that presented itself on San Onofre state beach in California this week. Actually, it washed ashore. The question is what to do with a dead gray whale. A 60,000-pound 43-foot-long whale just sitting there decaying on the area's most popular beach. At first, plenty of people wanted to have a look. Some took pictures. Some even placed flowers. But the fascination did not last. A stench made the beach unpleasant for anybody nearby. Surfers feared the carcass would attract sharks. The community wanted something done. It turns out that the National Marine Fisheries Service has just the team for this. Justin Viezbicke is coordinator for the agency's California Stranding Network.

JUSTIN VIEZBICKE: When we have beached whales that come ashore, we really only have about three options. You can, you know, tow it out to sea, you can leave it there on the beach or you can bury it on the beach or you can remove and take it to the landfill.

MARTIN: There is one option Viezbicke would not recommend - TNT. That's because of what happened back in 1970 when a whale washed up in Oregon. Officials decided to dynamite the whale into pieces they hoped would be small for seagulls and crabs to eat.


MARTIN: The now infamous event was captured by local television station KATU.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Our cameras stopped rolling immediately after the blast. The humor of the entire situation suddenly gave way to a run for survival as huge chunks of whale blubber fell everywhere.

MARTIN: That was exactly the kind of mess officials at San Onofre beach wanted to avoid with their dead whale. So what about the option of burying it? Kevin Pearsall, public safety superintendent for California State Parks, says that wouldn't work.

KEVIN PEARSALL: San Onofre is a relatively small sand beach and a rocky beach. So we were really not going to have enough room to dig a hole.

MARTIN: How about towing the carcass out to sea?

PEARSALL: We just really didn't want to take the chance of it washing back up on a beach.

MARTIN: Right, got it. So the only reasonable option left was to cut the whale into pieces and tow it, bit by large bit, to a landfill. So that's what they did. Six days after it washed up, the bulk of the dead whale is now gone. All that's left are some smaller pieces of the animal and the lingering smell. Stranding coordinator Justin Viezbicke says given the community's timeframe and resources, cutting up the dead whale was the right option. Ideally though, he says he'd prefer for nature to take its course.

VIEZBICKE: Even though it is a pretty big stinky mess for us, it actually provides a lot of nutrients and food for many other critters and a lot of the little ecosystems and niches that, you know, we don't necessarily get involved with on daily basis.

MARTIN: And though some people were upset to see a dead whale, Viezbicke says it's actually a good thing. With 20,000 whales swimming by California's coast every year, he says it's natural for these things to happen. And it's a sign that California's gray whale population is healthy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.