A fin whale has beached on the coast of Cornwall. But where has the 56ft beast come from? And what will happen if it explodes?
The mystery of the 100-tonne whale
Of all the deputations from the deep, a beached whale is the most astounding. Not just because of its size, but also because of the terrors it holds for the humans who may confront it. A stranded whale was once regarded as an ill omen; a right whale that stranded in the Thames in 1658 was widely seen as an augury of the death of Oliver Cromwell. Even now, the arrival this week of a 100-tonne, 56ft (16.9m) fin whale on Portowan Beach in Cornwall is a remarkable phenomenon – not least because Balaenoptera physalus is second only to the blue whale in size, reaching up to 85ft in length.
It belongs to the family of rorqual whales, so-called for the pleated ridges (from the Norwegian for furrow) that line their bellies. Foraging entirely on small fish, fin whales take great gulps of sea water to trap their prey, expanding their stomachs like concertinas and filtering their food through plates of baleen in their mouths (the whalebone once prized by corset-makers). Fin whales are unique among whales in being assymmetrically marked: the righthand side of their lower parts is a soft, dove-like grey; the left, much darker. Scientists hypothesise that the whales use this pale side to "flash" their prey and herd them into place.
I've seen these animals many times off Provincetown, Cape Cod: to have one swim under the boat is a deeply strange feeling. Diving below, the creature never seems to end, until it emerges at the other side with an explosive whoosh! from its twin blowholes. Watching its sleek dorsal fin scythe through the water, I'm always reminded that fin whales are the fastest of all great whales, dubbed the greyhounds of the sea and able to swim at 24 knots.
Too fast for 19th-century hunters of Herman Melville's era; only with the invention of the grenade harpoon did these speedy cetaceans (the name for this suborder) come within reach. The 20th century saw an unprecedented cull of rorqual whales in the Southern Ocean, by factory ships from the Falklands and South Georgia, as well as Norwegian, Soviet and Japanese fleets. And fin whales suffered the worst casualties of all: 720,000 were killed in the Southern Hemisphere alone.
This particular animal probably died as a result of a shipstrike in the Bay of Biscay – where lucky ferry passengers may occasionally see these leviathans swimming across the bows. The skeleton of one such casualty, found in Andalucia, was used by the contemporary Mexican artist Gabriel Orozoco in an installation in London's White Cube gallery in 2006. The Cornish whale, however, has drifted into royal hands. Extraordinarily, a still extant 14th- century edict determines that any whale, dolphin, sturgeon or porpoise washed on to English shores is the property of the monarch, a relic of an age when a whale represented great wealth.
Since whales are of little use to Buckingham Palace these days, that responsibility now devolves to the Receiver of Wreck, Alison Kentuck. From her office in Southampton, Kentuck tells me that the whale, a female, had been seen floating at sea for a day or so, and is now in a rocky, inaccessible cove. "We're waiting for a predicated storm to come along and wash it along to somewhere where it will be easier to deal with," she says. "It's already quite badly decayed – apparently you can smell it from the clifftop. Although since it's now on Duchy of Cornwall land, it's actually the property of the Prince of Wales – or perhaps that should be the Prince of Whales?"
Apart from cracking bad jokes, one of Kentuck's tasks is to prevent public interaction with beached whales. The carcasses can communicate zoonotic, or inter-species disease (as can live whales, a warning for anyone within spouting distance of a cetacean), or worse. The buildup of gases in an animal's stomach can cause a whale to expand to bursting point – in 1617, a sperm whale beached at Scheveningen in the Netherlands exploded, fatally infecting bystanders. Indeed, the artist Albrecht Dürer, in his eagerness to reach a similarly stranded whale on Denmark's Zealand coast, caught a fever from the marsh, and likewise perished as a result. It seems that in the case of the whale, the meeting of human history and natural history is seldom a happy one.
Kentuck's first duty is to offer a beached whale to the Natural History Museum; a necropsy may be carried out by the Zoological Society of London. But generally, the animal is destined for the dump. In the past, Kentuck has ordered plant machinery to tear the carcasses into manageable chunks before disposal in a local landfill. It is an ignominous end for such an exquisite creature; but perhaps a better fate than that facing its cousins in the Southern Ocean where, under the guise of "scientific research", a Japanese whaling fleet is even now harpooning fin whales destined not for the laboratory, but for the supermarket counter.
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