Doris Sheppard told a lie the other day, a small white lie, rooted in the goodness of her heart and uttered with the truest of intentions to a group of young children that were milling about on the boardwalk overlooking the beach in Trout River, N.L. Kids, being kids, get into all sorts of stuff in Trout River. It is a town of 600 people where people don’t lock their doors and where eight, nine and 10-year-olds are allowed to roam free, just like the good old days.
And, lately, the place for them to roam has been the town’s beach, a trove for skipping rocks and sea glass and, as of last Friday, the final resting place for one very large, very dead, very bloated blue whale.
“Kids are curious,” says Ms. Sheppard, the owner, along with her husband, Tom, of Sheppard’s B and B and a frequent visitor to the beach in recent days to take pictures of the dead whale. “The kids were wanting to go over and poke at it. They were wanting to go out and jump on the whale, and it is filling up with methane gas.
“I said to them, ‘My God, don’t you be doing that, because if that whale bursts you’ll be blown to smithereens.’ That’s what I said — and then they asked me if I knew their parents — which I didn’t. But I told them I did anyway.
“It is a novel thing, the whale.
It is a nightmare, the whale, a decaying mass of blubber and baleen and flesh measuring about 25 metres from tip to whale tail and weighing approximately 80 tonnes. Imagine 30 or so dead elephants appearing on your doorstep, unannounced, and you can imagine what the people in Trout River, a picturesque tourist town in Gros Morne National Park, are thinking. Which, in a word, is: How the hell are we going to get rid of this potentially explosive blue whale before the summer high season begins?
“We don’t know what to do,” says Emily Butler, the town manager. “The whale is there on our beach. It has been there since Friday. We are heading into tourist season. I’ve contacted the Coast Guard, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Environment Canada — and all these departments keep saying that the whale is on municipal property, and so it is the responsibility of the town.”
Nine blue whales got trapped in the ice and perished off western Newfoundland this winter, an unprecedented mass death of an endangered species that numbers only about 250 off of the Newfoundland coast. Three of the dead whales have drifted ashore, in Baker’s Brook, Rocky Harbour and Trout River.
Jack Lawson is a research scientist with DFO’s marine mammals section. He has seen some dead whales in his day. His concerns about the dead whale beaching in Trout River is twofold.
“The [whale] skin is starting to lose its integrity and if someone were to walk along, say, the chin — that is full of all that gas — they could fall in the whale. The insides will be liquefied. Retrieving them would be very difficult.
“I have fallen through the side of a whale up to my chest. It’s not very nice. And if the animal is up against the shore and there are waves battering it, and it’s moving, then you can imagine what would happen if it rolled over onto a child.”
The great beast is also a dead animal full of diseases, including a strain of dermatitis that causes skin on human hands to crack and break and itch and requires heavy doses of medication to remedy.
It is a fine mess. The dead whale, in its present location, smack in town, practically on the doorstep of Trout River’s Fishermen’s Museum and with the world-famous Seaside Restaurant — an international destination for foodies that has been written up in The New York Times — nearby, is turning what was initially a local curiosity into a full-blown crisis.
A dead blue whale washed up on a pristine beach in P.E.I. decades ago. Locals there dug a huge hole to dispose of it, which is one method that might work in Trout River. Other potential solutions include towing it to somewhere more remote, beaching it above the tide line and letting nature take its course. Or else cutting it into smaller pieces, taking tissue samples for research purposes — and hoping for the best.
Time, however, is running out. The tourists are coming. Soon. And a bloated whale will only stay bloated for so long before it potentially pops.
“If it could decay really fast and we were left with the skeleton of a blue whale — wouldn’t that be great — because it would be a tourist attraction,” says Doris Sheppard. “And it is an attraction now, because it is cold and the decaying process is slow.
“But once the warm weather comes, can you imagine the smell? It is starting to smell now. Monday it was faint. Today it is a little stronger.”
And what does a decaying blue whale smell like?
“Like a toilet. And it is only going to get worse.”