This blue marble

– and yet it spins

Looking for strandings – and through dead stuff

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whalebones-2Two land days in a row. During the first one we emptied the old freezer in the garage. Too gross for photos, but try to imagine the smell of dead dolphin or sea bird carcass. Baby whale stomach contents. Or a dumpster used not for garbage but for natural rotting of dolphin skull flesh with the help of maggots loving horse dung, in order to bare the bones and create a beautiful skull for display.

The rotting flesh and horse manure were no contest for what we pulled out from the freezer. The worst were the intestines of a half-rotten dusky dolphin. We had to open its stomach and gut, and to look for eye lenses and earbones of fish. They were tiny, tiny things amidst much else rank stuff. I confess I had to stand upwind from the carcass. The smell was horrible, and unfortunately it only got worse as we pulled out the remains of the insides of a bottlenose dolphin baby. Or perhaps it was a pygmy right whale baby. Must have been as the organs were so large. The sight of a carcass does not bother me at all; it is simply the conditioning of my brain that says this is smelly and unhealthy for you, and you should vomit to be on the safe side.

But I soldiered on, like everybody else. Nobody displayed any visible signs of being physically grossed out, even those who had never done a necropsy before. But I refused to believe that I was the only one who suffered. It was not my first dissection day, but I know from experience that had we done this inside I would not have been able to contain my involuntary retchings.

I washed my jeans twice in the laundry machine but still could not get the smell out entirely.whalebonesFortunately, the second land day was all about beaches and 4×4 driving and fresh air. Secretly I hoped we would not find a fresh stranding, alive or dead, because in the first case we’d be exhausted after a long, potentially dangerous rescue mission; and in the latter case we’d be exhausted from in situ necropsy, throwing all our clothes away by the end of the day.

Thank goodness that we just found old bones. No need for rescue or necropsy. One person was able to carry one spinal disc from the stranding site to the car. It took two people to move a sei whale’s lower jawbone about half a meter. The rubber wellies in the photo are a huge size 44 (US size 11), for comparison.whalebones-3(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

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