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Date: 19-24 January 1999
Location : La Jolla, CA
Notes and Comments : First reported in the SD Union Tribune (SDUT), a large very dead whale washed ashore in La Jolla. La Jolla is, of course, the high rent district. The locals didn't like the thought (or smell) of multiple tons of putrifying flesh upwind from their multi-million dollar beach-front homes. A number of attempts to remove the carcass were attempted, but as of this date (24 Jan) none were successful. We visited the site out of morbid curiosity, like many others in the area. Succinctly put, this whole event was a comedy of errors. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But, it was the chainsaw vandal that truly immortalized the event. I could only imagine the chutzpah of the individual manning that saw cutting through the purifying carcass, spewing rancid tissue like a snow blower. Think I am kidding? Read on.
The chronicles from the SDUT we site are shown below in order of publication. Also, there is a late-breaking update from Tinian, Taiwan January 2004,
Go directly to the photos.
Go to the exploding whale video which is a similar, but unrelated, event (though equally funny and disgusting).
LA JOLLA--A dead whale is decomposing in a secluded cove here, and city
lifeguards aren't sure what to do about it.
The surf has been too rough to send in boats for hauling away the carcass,
said Lt. Charles Wright of the Life Guard Service. He said he will try to
consult today with National Marine Fisheries officials for ideas.
"People are complaining about the smell. It's probably going to plague us
for a while," Wright said.
The whale was seen floating offshore last week and beached on Friday, then
was drawn off the beach southward into the cove off Dolphin Place and
The folks near La Jolla's Bird Rock neighborhood can handle the musky odor
that permeates the shoreline during ebb tide, but not the eye-watering
stench from a decaying whale.
"It's nasty!" observed San Diego lifeguard Lt. Charlie Wright.
Since Friday, the decomposing gray whale, estimated at nearly 40 feet long,
has been alternately beached and floating along the shoreline below La
Jolla Hermosa Park near Chelsea Avenue and Camino de la Costa.
A steady trickle of complaints from aggravated residents has gotten the
attention of officials at City Hall.
"We've got a couple-ton problem on our hands," said Scott Tillson, chief of
staff for Councilman Harry Mathis, whose district includes La Jolla.
To soothe frayed nerves, a lifeguard official was scheduled to meet
yesterday with Bird Rock residents to explain why it has taken so long to
get rid of the stinking whale carcass.
Part of the problem, Tillson said, is that the whale came ashore along a
rocky stretch of shoreline where it is impossible to bring in heavy
machinery capable of moving such an enormous object.
City lifeguards had planned to slip a rope around the dead whale and tow
the enormous carcass out to sea, but high surf yesterday made that too
dangerous to attempt, Tillson said.
Lifeguards are also concerned that they don't have a boat with enough power
to drag the whale out to sea. They were checking with the Coast Guard to
see if a craft with some muscle might be used to dislodge the whale.
Wright said he and others spent a lot of time trying to solve the
They even received a bid from a self-professed whale-removal expert from UC
Berkeley, who offered to cut the whale into pieces and haul the pieces away
for a $10,000 fee, Wright said.
"Right now we're scratching our heads," Wright said. "If the surf was flat,
we could just get a boat in there and we'd take care of it. But we don't
want to do anything that might cause an injury" to a lifeguard.
Lifeguards and city parks officials routinely dispose of dead seals and sea
lions, but beached whales of this size are a fairly rare occurrence, Wright
Of all the foul-smelling things the sea has coughed up over the years, a
week-old dead whale may be the most pungent.
That didn't stop lifeguard Sgt. Bob Albers from stepping forward yesterday
to put a tow rope over the tail of the 40-foot carcass, which is stuck on
the shoreline in La Jolla.
"I could have assigned the job to someone else, but I try to lead by
example," Albers said.
The smelly job, which Albers performed with lifeguard Laine Pepper, was a
necessary preparation for an operation planned for today to tow the carcass
from La Jolla to Fiesta Island in Mission Bay.
If the lifeguards are successful in removing the dead whale, it will then
be loaded onto a flatbed truck and hauled to the city's Miramar Landfill.
The dead whale has been a tricky problem for lifeguards because it is
lodged along a rocky area that is inaccessible to heavy machinery capable
of moving such a large object. It has been alternately beached and floating
at high tide along the shoreline below La Jolla Hermosa Park.
When high tide hits around 11 a.m. today, a 41-foot Coast Guard Cutter will
assist lifeguards as they attempt to tow the whale with a 22-foot surf
The stench from the rotting whale has been aggravating residents near La
Jolla's Bird Rock neighborhood since the weekend. The odor is so powerful
that one lifeguard who got a whiff of it immediately threw up, Albers said.
The whale's odor tends to cling to anything that it comes in contact with.
And this included Albers, who said that after his recent encounter, the dog
that normally sleeps at the foot of his bed was so repulsed it left the
"I've taken two showers since then and I still smell," Albers said. On
Monday, lifeguards were able to attach a tow rope around the tail, but it
came undone and high waves prevented lifeguards from towing the dead whale
to sea Tuesday. An attempt to tow the carcass yesterday was aborted when
the boat developed engine problems.
The strategy was deceptively simple: Dislodge a foul-smelling, extremely
dead , 40-foot whale from a pocket beach in La Jolla. Tow the carcass down
the coast to Fiesta Island in Mission Bay. Shovel the whale onto a flatbed
truck and make a mad dash for the Miramar landfill.
There was some urgency.
The decaying beast happened to wash ashore directly below a stretch of
million-dollar homes. Affluency and pungency don't mix. Just ask City Hall,
which urged lifeguards to do their best to dispose of the overripe carcass.
Yesterday's Operation Blubber-Be-Gone had all the aplomb of a Shakespearean
comedy. It succeeded as a farce but failed as a mission.
Whales occasionally wash ashore in San Diego County, but they're usually
not so massive. The 25- to 30-ton specimen to be removed from Devil's Cove
north of Bird Rock was identified by scientists as a female adult gray
whale. It had died of natural causes.
An estimated 10 to 15 gray whales -- usually newborns -- become stranded or
die along California's 1,100-mile shoreline each year as they migrate from
Alaska to Baja California and back between October and March. So far this
season, about 10 have washed up statewide.
Whale disposal is hardly an exact science. Some carcasses are buried on the
beach; others are towed out to sea. They've been sliced and diced and
hauled away, too.
"It really depends on the situation and every situation is different," said
Kelly Robertson, a federal biologist with the National Marine Fisheries
Service in La Jolla.
Robertson took tissue samples from the carcass to obtain a DNA fingerprint
that may show if the whale is related to other beached whales.
San Diego city lifeguards, who had never before played tug-of-war with such
a massive creature, came up with a plan that seemed brilliant in its
Step 1: Place a noose around dead whale's tale.
Step 2: Attach a 600-foot floating polypropylene rope to the noose.
Step 3: Connect the rope to a 22-foot lifeguard rescue boat.
Step 4: Wait until the peak of high tide. Rev motor and let 'er rip.
Lifeguard officials had decided against towing the whale out to sea and
letting nature take its course.
"We don't know that it won't just float back into shore," explained
lifeguard Lt. Brant Bass. "We'd rather play it safe and get rid of it for
And the beach is considered inaccessible to heavy machinery.
About 100 spectators gathered at La Jolla Hermosa Park above the beach to
watch. Two television news helicopters hovered overhead like giant yellow
jackets sniffing fish juice at a salmon bake.
"You can smell a hint of (the whale) when the wind shifts just right," said
Tom Gattegno, who rode his bike from Mission Beach to the park to see if
the whale could be budged.
The normally dark-colored whale, which was first seen floating offshore a
week ago, had turned white from decay. Yesterday, it resembled a giant
albino banana slug.
"It's really Jell-O now," observed Gattegno.
The crowd stirred when a lifeguard on a Jet Ski appeared with a tow rope as
long as 2 1/2 football fields. The rope was handed off to a lifeguard
swimming near shore, who attached it to the noose around the whale.
Byron McCoy, a local resident, watched from the cliff-top park, with its
carnival of spectators. McCoy's pet parrot Oscar clung to his shoulder.
"I predict the whale's tale will be pulled off if there's any strain at all
from the rope," McCoy said.
Oscar erupted into maniacal laughter.
"Oh, it's not that funny," McCoy admonished.
The first tug by the lifeguard boat around 11 a.m. caused the whale's tail
to flinch, but that was all. The lifeguards then handed off the towline to
the U.S. Coast Guard. A 41-foot patrol boat spooled out an additional 200
feet or so of rope before trying to dislodge the whale with the strength of
its twin diesel engines.
The towline was again pulled taut. The whale didn't budge.
Then the line broke.
Later inspection showed that metal couplings linking the towlines gave way.
Lifeguards say they'll try again when the tide is high and their luck is
better. They plan to use a winch to gradually pull the whale into the water
during each high tide. The next best opportunity to tow it away may not
come until Monday.
There's also a wild card: The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
has put out the word that it wants an intact whale skeleton.
Leaving the carcass alone is "a last option," said Bass. "We have to
consider the community and it's only going to smell worse."
Plans by San Diego lifeguards to remove a dead whale from a La Jolla beach
were further frustrated yesterday when it was discovered that someone had
cut off the tail of the carcass.
Without the tail, lifeguards say, there's not an easy way to fasten a rope
to the 40-foot-long carcass and pull it off the beach and out to sea.
The whale, which has been dead for more than a week, has been lying on a
pocket beach north of Bird Rock. Foul odors from the rotting carcass, which
had triggered complaints from neighbors, seem to be decreasing, lifeguards
On Thursday, lifeguards tried unsuccessfully to pull it into the ocean
using long ropes and various boats.
The grotesque discovery of the severed tail on the beach yesterday had
lifeguards shaking their heads.
"What a bizarre act," said Lifeguard Chief B. Chris Brewster. "What could
possibly motivate someone to cut off the whale's tail and leave it there,
other than to thwart our efforts to remove it?"
Brewster said the tail was severed sometime overnight Thursday and
discarded on the beach.
The mutilation of the whale wasn't the only unseemly act perpetrated on the
dead marine mammal. Area residents reported that someone also had
spray-painted graffiti on the carcass.
News coverage of the beached whale carcass turned the normally quiet,
upscale La Jolla neighborhood into a roadside attraction for gawkers.
"At first it was just locals from Mission Beach and Pacific Beach, but now
there's people from all over the place," said Darlene Russell, who lives
near La Jolla Hermosa Terrace Park, the best vantage point from which to
Yesterday afternoon, a steady stream of cars flowed along Camino de la
Costa near the park. One after the other, people emerged from their
vehicles and scanned the beach below looking for the carcass. Many didn't
recognize the long, white dough-like blob on the beach as the whale.
As some watched with binoculars, teen-agers climbed down a crude path to
reach the crescent-shaped beach.
"There's all kinds of people down there poking around it," Russell said.
"It's not a safe place to get down to the beach and all the looky-loos are
climbing up and down it."
While residents endured the traffic and congestion along the narrow
streets, city lifeguards struggled to decide on their next move.
The effort to tug the carcass off the beach failed when metal couplings
that linked the towlines attached to the whale broke.
The Navy yesterday dispatched a 110-foot ship outfitted with a 1,000-foot
towline to see if that equipment was capable of removing the carcass.
But that operation was abandoned when it was deemed that the line was too
short. The captain of the Navy ship decided against bringing the craft too
close to shore because of a large offshore shoal.
Lifeguards also checked with the Marines to see if the whale could be
lifted by a cargo helicopter, but officials decided that was too risky in
light of the whale's proximity to houses.
Lifeguards spent several hours yesterday trying to drain fluid from inside
the carcass to render it lighter and, presumably, easier to remove from the
beach. They were not successful.
Brewster said he asked police to shoot a hole into the whale, but they
declined on the basis that it was an improper use of police firearms.
The lifeguard chief said he was also considering an offer from someone to
cut up the whale and haul the pieces away for $5,000.
About the only positive development in the ongoing whale saga was that the
once-overpowering stench from the decaying carcass seems to be subsiding.
"I was down there with it for 2 1/2 hours today and I was impressed at how
little it smells," said Brewster. "The severity of the problem declines
with the decreasing power of the odor."
Lifeguards hope to rid the beach of dead whale
By Susan Gembrowski
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
January 24, 1999
LA JOLLA -- San Diego lifeguards, frustrated by attempts to remove a whale carcass from a La Jolla beach, are hoping Mother Nature will help out in the next few days.
They have wound ropes around the dead whale and tied them to a rock off the shore of Devil's Cove north of Bird Rock.
As high tides wash in under the carcass, the hope is that the tension on the lines will pull the whale out to sea, said Lifeguard Lt. Brant Bass.
"The first 10 yards will be crucial," Bass said. "After the whale is floating, there will be no problem."
Once the whale carcass is far enough out in the water, lifeguards will use their own boat to tow it away. Bass' best guess is that it will happen early Wednesday morning at high tide.
The 40-foot whale weighing about 25 to 30 tons has been a pesky removal problem because of its size. Lifeguards tied a tow line to the carcass earlier in the week, but the line attached to a U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat snapped.
Then the whale carcass' tail was cut off by vandals, making it even harder for lifeguards to get a rope around it.
Scientists have identified it as a female adult gray whale that had died of natural causes.
Whales occasionally beach in San Diego, as this one did more than a week ago, but they usually aren't as big. A smaller whale that washed ashore at Sunset Cliffs several years ago was easily towed by one of the lifeguards' inflatable boats, Bass said.
The gray whale carcass that washed ashore north of Bird Rock last week probably will remain where it is until the mid-to latter part of the week, when rising tides associated with a coming full moon might help get it afloat, said Lifeguard Chief B. Chris Brewster.
A rope with tautening pulleys has been tied around the 40-foot carcass and fastened to a rock offshore. Lifeguards posted overnight to deter vandals have been tightening the line during early morning high tides, but that system has only moved the massive mammal about a foot, Brewster said.
"I don't know how effective it'll be, but it's the best we can do right now," he said.
If the whale can't be dislodged and towed out in the coming peak tides, it might have to be chopped into pieces to be removed. That could be expensive, Brewster said.
"The least attractive solution is to just allow it to sit and rot," he said.
January 26, 1999
A gray whale carcass that was stinking up a posh La Jolla oceanfront neighborhood last week is still keeping San Diego lifeguards busy.
The latest development: A lifeguard has been assigned to guard the carcass.
The surveillance is necessary to keep vandals away and to ensure that thieves won't steal the ropes and pulleys attached to the dead whale, said Lifeguard Chief B. Chris Brewster.
Last week, vandals cut off the tail of the dead whale and removed a loop of rope that lifeguards had attached during an aborted attempt Thursday to tow away the decaying creature.
The carcass can't be buried on the pocket beach where it washed up over a week ago because the shoreline is mostly rock and cobblestone. The beach, which is just north of La Jolla Hermosa Terrace Park, is ringed by 40-foot cliffs and is inaccessible to heavy equipment.
Over the weekend, lifeguards tied more rope around the carcass and fastened the line to a rock offshore in an attempt to keep the 25-ton whale from getting pushed higher up the beach.
Brewster said his current strategy is to wait until the high tides approach their peak levels Friday or Saturday and tow the carcass away while it is floating. He has also been trying to find a professional waste-removal company willing to cut up the carcass and haul it away.
"It's not like you can pick up the Yellow Pages and find a listing for whale-removal services," he said.
At least four local firms have approached, but each turned down the job offer, he said.
In the meantime, Brewster has been receiving a steady stream of suggestions on how to dispose of the carcass.
"I've received e-mail messages from all over the United States recommending various methods, but unfortunately nobody has a better idea," Brewster said. "But hey, folks, keep the cards and letters coming."
January 29, 1999
One more time.
If their luck rises as high as the tide, San Diego lifeguards today may finally extract a stinky, 25-ton problem from the Devil's Cove beach in La Jolla.
The tonnage is the estimated weight of a whale carcass that washed ashore more than a week ago on a rocky pocket beach that is inaccessible to heavy equipment.
The carcass is that of an adult female gray whale that perished from natural causes while migrating from the Bering Sea near Alaska to the lagoons of central Baja California.
On Jan. 21, lifeguards tried to dislodge the 40-foot-long carcass from the beach, but the tow rope looped around the whale's tail broke as it was being pulled by a 41-foot Coast Guard boat.
That wasn't the first time that authorities had been made to feel like blubbering fools when confronted with the task of disposing of dead marine mammals.
An extensive history of other colossal failures can be gleaned from Chapter 11 of "Marine Mammals Ashore -- A Field Guide for Strandings," published by the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
It concludes with some overarching advice coupled with an ominous warning: "The best way to deal with a carcass is to bury, remove, render or tow it. Few large-scale disposal operations will turn out as planned."
Other highlights from the eight pages of whale disposal history:
The San Diego Natural History Museum was involved in a similar folly after a 34-foot humpback whale washed ashore at the Silver Strand in the winter of 1982. Scientists severed the head and fins and buried them with the expectation that, in a few years, maggots, worms and other creatures would pick the bones clean -- perfect for display in the museum's collection.
But, when curator Tom Demere exhumed the bones 10 years later, he discovered that sea water had infiltrated the burial site. As a result, the whale parts failed to decompose as expected. He was forced to rebury the entire rank, putrefied mess.
Today's strategy for dislodging the whale calls for impaling the carcass with a rod so that it can be pulled to sea with chains attached to 2,000 feet of heavy rope. It is hoped that high tide, which reaches its peak at 7:18 a.m., will provide the crucial flotation needed to lift the behemoth.
"This has been a virtually insoluble problem practically everywhere that it's occurred," observed San Diego Lifeguard Chief Chris Brewster. "If we're successful, we may break new ground."
Once under tow, the whale would be transported to Mission Bay, then loaded onto a truck at Fiesta Island and taken to the Miramar landfill.
"We've gained a lot of experience from this whole incident," Brewster said. "But certainly we hope not to have the opportunity to apply it again in the future."
January 30, 1999
As if summoning a final measure of dignity, La Jolla's beached gray whale shed its stench yesterday and accepted a tow line to an earthly grave.
The 25-ton whale's rotting carcass had been trapped in Devil's Cove for two weeks, wafting a scent the equivalent of 10,000 locker rooms to homeowners on the cliffs above.
San Diego city lifeguards, battling treacherous reefs and brain-dead thieves, had failed in previous attempts to haul it away.
They had the plan and the skill and the nerve for the job. All they needed was a little more water, and at 6:30 a.m. yesterday, the tide was high.
The lifeguards arrived before daybreak and discovered that robbers had struck again Thursday night. A week before, vandals had stolen some ropes and cut off the whale's tail. This time, they severed lines that had been installed for yesterday's towing operation.
But the lifeguards were prepared for the dead whale, and for less intelligent creatures.
Three lifeguards in white suits and black gloves carried replacement ropes down to the thin slice of shore between the cliffs and the floating whale. Waves rolled the carcass and tossed the men the way a bowling ball scatters pins. But the lifeguards kept getting up, and within a half hour, the new harness was firmly in place.
Darkness gave way to a hazy light, revealing three vessels out beyond the reefs. A small boat delivered a 2,400-foot line from the whale to a bigger boat, which handed it off to a still larger vessel bound for Fiesta Island in Mission Bay.
"This was definitely the day to get it," John Bahl, one of the men in white, said to the handful of people who witnessed the triumph. The carcass was falling apart, he said, and there was a chance it might not make it to Mission Bay.
"Keep your fingers crossed," he said.
On Fiesta Island, Dennis Simmons, beach maintenance manager for San Diego Parks and Recreation, had all of his fingers uncrossed. He was hoping the whale might slip off the rope and sink, sparing his crew what figured to be a messy mission.
Machinery was lined up for the heavy lifting: six bulldozer-like vehicles, four with big forks in front and two with scoops that resembled giant spoons. Two tractor-trailer rigs -- a flatbed and a dump truck -- were standing by.
Simmons pulled out a buck knife.
"I've always wanted to be a sushi chef," he said.
The whale arrived at about 9 a.m., a bleached blob waiting 20 feet off shore.
But not for long. One of the forks got its prongs beneath the carcass and started pushing it toward the sand, while one of the spoons pulled it by the tow rope.
The line snapped. A groan went up from the 25 or so spectators. But a second fork moved in to help shove the whale ashore.
The misshapen carcass of a once-noble sea creature folded over and balled up. What remained of its tail flopped to the sand. Reduced by the journey from La Jolla, the whale nearly fit into the spoon of one bulldozer.
A fork moved in to help push it up, and a liquid poured out of the carcass. A light breeze carried its odor to the nearby onlookers, a fishy smell, but not the killer stench it had unleashed upon La Jolla.
The dump truck moved in, scattering TV camera crews, and the two spoons hoisted the whale skyward. A fork stood poised to break its fall.
Up went the carcass, until the dozers' arms were fully extended. The truck backed under the whale, and the spoons lowered it into the truck bed.
Terri Williams, the city's deputy director of coastal parks, was all smiles.
"Twenty-two minutes from arrival on the beach and it's in the truck," she said. "The expertise these equipment operators brought to this job -- San Diego should be proud."
The dump truck headed for the Miramar landfill, where site disposal manager Charles Hood planned to have a special hole ready to swallow the whale. But the plan changed, he said, when he saw the carcass.
"It was small, not at all what I expected," he said. "We buried it right with the commercial trash."
January 30, 1999
T he dead whale, now thankfully shipped off to whale heaven, certainly captured the imaginations of local folks. AOL's Digital City S.D. bulletin board shared San Diegans' ideas for removal of the corpse. Blowing it up or chopping it into small pieces were the usual suggestions. John Robert Crawford of Del Cerro says one of the most creative he found was: "Give it to Mikey, Mikey will eat anything." . . . Susan Bernstein stumbled upon the translation of an old recipe attributed to the Kwakiutl Indians entitled "How to cook a whale found dead." Most importantly, the recipe advises, "You cannot eat it all by yourself. So the first step is to call for a party and invite all your friends, relatives and local dignitaries. The choicest piece (the dorsal fin) goes to the ranking dignitary, typically the chief of the village." If whale doesn't appeal to you, there's also a recipe for cooking salmon guts and instructions on how to catch and cook sea slugs, including what to say when you bonk them on the head . . . Rich James definitely has a nose for business. He's peddling T-shirts quoting S.D. Lifeguard Chief B. Chris Brewster: "The severity of the problem declines with the decreasing power of the odor."
Blood and guts litter this street in Tainan, Taiwan, after decomposing organs in the sperm whale in background caused it to explode.
TAIPEI - Residents of Tainan learned a lesson in whale biology after the decomposing remains of a 60-ton sperm whale exploded on a busy street, showering nearby cars and shops with blood and organs and stopping traffic for hours.
"What a stinking mess. This blood and other stuff that blew out on the road is disgusting, and the smell is really awful," a BBC News report quoted one Tainan resident as saying.
The whale had died on Jan. 17 after it beached itself on the southwestern coast of the island.
The sperm whale was being carried by truck through Tainan.
Researchers at the National Cheng Kung University in Tainan said enough of the whale remained to allow for an examination by marine biologists.
Once moved to a nearby nature preserve, the male specimen -- the largest whale ever recorded in Taiwan -- drew the attention of locals because of its large penis, measured at some five feet, the Taipei Times reported.
"More than 100 Tainan city residents, mostly men, have reportedly gone to see the corpse to 'experience' the size of its penis," the newspaper reported.
The reason this event was amusing and noteworthy, aside from the buffoonery of the participants and the truely priceless quotes is the fact that I encountered the whale on the freeway. Unbeknownst to me, they had finally succeeded in removing the whale and were trucking the carcass to the landfill. I was behind the truck, but did not know that it was there. The smell, however, could not be ignored. Basically, I gagged my way to work not realizing the cause of the intolerable odor and bad taste that it left in your mouth (for hours). I finally discovered the cause via the evening news. Truely disgusting.
The photos below are not super close-ups. The beach cove in question was mostly inaccessable and the stench, even from up wind and south by several hundred yards, was formidable. Some might term it intolerable. Like the homeowners, for instance.
The whale carcass is visible on the pocket beach.
A wide angle of the same scene. A smelly mess.
Note the birds feeding on the carcass.
Very expensive homes near the carcass.
A nose for news.
When the wind shifted, the stench was overwhelming.
Wind shifted, the spectators leave.
This kind of event makes me glad that I don't live near the beach.
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