Time’s effects on…dead whales

There is a marvellous thing called whale fall. If a whale dies in deep waters, where fewer scavenger species exist, the carcass becomes a mini ecosystem, providing food and shelter for other organisms (sharks, prawns, worm-like things, crabs, clams, fishies) for decades. They become, as @girlprinter observed, nature’s food trucks, coming soon to a deep sea zone near you. First, the soft tissue is eaten—perhaps 40-60kg of soft tissue per day, for up to two years. Then, other animals begin to colonise the bones and consume the tissue left behind by larger scavengers. Finally, bacteria break down the fat and oils left in the bones, a stage that can last 50-100 years. (Whale bones are very porous, so they can hold a lot of oil). Eventually the skeleton reaches the sea floor, free of flesh.

Sometimes, though, a dead whale washes up on a beach. Museums like to collect whale skeletons but don’t have a century to spare on the process—so they speed things up a bit. First, the carcass is moved with bulldozers, cranes and semitrailers to a worksite. The flesh is removed and the bones macerated (soaked in water to remove soft tissues) and degreased to remove oil molecules. There are a variety of degreasing methods; often the bones are immersed in tanks containing a bacterial solution. The bacteria eat up the fats and oils over several months. This process is often conducted in facilities located near sewage or water treatment plants, where the locals are already inured to strange pongs. The whole process—carcass to skeleton—can still take a few years.

The dead whale that washed ashore in Warrnambool is too difficult to access, so it can't be taken away to the macerating pits.

The dead whale that washed ashore in Warrnambool is too difficult to access, so it can’t be taken away to the macerating pits.

Read about the treatment of a whale carcass found on Prince Edward Island, by staff at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Some video, also!

Issue two of Materiality (the TIME issue) will be published in late June or early July. Stay tuned!