Monday, September 17, 2007
Dead whales, gawkers, and scavengers
[Photo: Stephen Osman / Los Angeles Times]
A Blue whale made quite a stink and drew a fabulous crowd last week. Highway 101 beside Ventura's Solimar Beach was jammed as the masses clamored to the sand. Folks down there don't see much wildlife, and a beached whale is a once-in-a-lifetime experience anywhere in the world. Well, I take that back. A smaller blue whale was cast ashore on Long Beach a few weeks ago. It seems these leviathans made the fatal mistake of tarrying in the shipping lanes of the Santa Barbara channel, where whale food seems to be concentrated this year. The latest word is that the vets who performed the necropsy went home to bathe, and the carcass was buried by dozers.
Which makes you wonder. Are there marine scavengers suitably sized and equipped to dispose of this amount of putrescent mana? You know, not all whale, giant shark, and megasquid corpses come to rest on a beach or rocky shore, do they. Most of them, I imagine, linger in the deep blue sea like de-finned sharks. In the Pleistocene there was a fine assemblage of terrestrial scavengers here, including California condors, to fight over beached spoils, and we know that large cats stomach foul meat quite well. I can see Felis atrox and Smilodon fatalis following their noses to the beach.
What I want to know is this: are there any large marine scavengers in the briney deep? Or are colossi of carrion nibbled away by bacteria and gazillions of marine invertebrates? If someone in the blogosphere has the answer, please fill us in!
I guess it's just coincidence that Martin Collinson's blog -- George Bristow's Secret Freezer recently evoked a whale memory of my bygone youth. This moved Martin to do me one better in the category of tales of bawdy biologists.
I might add that as I was flensing that grampus, something moved me to smack the whale's mellon (the bonnet of fat) with the side of a machete. The purest of clear oil oozed forth, which I collected in a jar like some precious liquor. That night I lovingly rubbed the whale oil into the leather sheath of my skinning knife. It soon turned black and mellowed into the overwhelming and unmistakable smell of rancid whale oil. It was the gift that keeps on giving. Anything stored in my skinning kit (an old metal tackle box) acquired the bouquet. I kept it in the basement, and ten years passed before I discarded the sheath. Twenty years later I tossed the metal tackle box, but I still have the knife and its delicate bouquet to remind me of dead whales.
Thanks to Marty Fujita of Marty's Food Chain for setting the wheels in motion for this story.