No matter how hard they tried, authorities in Hawaii just couldn't get rid of a giant floating marshmallowy creature that kept washing up on their coastline. Fortunately, since the blob was being so stubborn, it provided scientists with some solid insights into marine life and the local environment.
The gigantic blob is, in fact, the carcass of a 15-meter-long (50-foot) sperm whale that first washed ashore on January 10 along the south coast of O’ahu, close to the Sand Island State Recreation Area near Honolulu. The remains were hauled out 24 kilometers (15 miles) into the open ocean by a jet ski, but quickly washed up again.
A week on, it was then dragged out to around 3.8 kilometers (2.5 miles) from the shore. That was hoped to be the end of the story, until it reappeared on a remote beach along the west coast.
“The agencies involved (DLNR, NOAA), have made the decision to leave the carcass in place, to let nature take its course and to let us learn from this carcass,” David Schofield, Marine Mammal Response Coordinator for the NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, said in a news release.
“We continue to ask people not to disturb this carcass, as both state and federal laws could come into play," he added. "Additionally, due to the possible presence of bones and tissues in the nearshore waters, there could be continued shark activity."
Since this sperm whale stuck around for so long, marine biologists from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa decided to seize the opportunity to study it. Researchers have flocked to the carcass to collect teeth and bones as the body decomposes. A necropsy last week showed that the sperm whale was most likely suffering from disease, although thankfully they discovered no signs of debris in its gut.
“The main thing we looked at was stomach contents to help us better understand the whale’s diet. We did discover that the whale had not foraged for some time,” Professor Kristi West, who leads the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology's Marine Mammal Stranding Lab, said in a statement.
“We also looked at exposed bone, which indicates this whale was probably 50 feet [15 meters] long.”
Whales play an important role in Hawaiian history, so academics are also attempting to understand the whale’s beaching from a cultural perspective.
“From a cultural standpoint we always look at the whale’s best interest, as they not only represent a large marine mammal, but in Hawaiian culture they represent our kupuna who traveled from far, distant places,” said Noelani Puniwai, UH Mānoa assistant professor of Hawaiian studies. “They are amazing messengers, as we can learn so much from them and help us to determine our own roles in the environment.”
Whales can become stranded on land for a number of reasons, most of which are of no concern. However, mass whale strandings are another deal. A recent study looked into this increasingly common phenomenon and discovered exactly how naval sonar can drive freak mass strandings.