Dispatching Beached Whales

Vets living in beachside towns may be called to attend a beached whale, more commonly to euthanase than heal.   Here’s a few pointers on declaring or inducing death in marine megafauna, and the use of explosives for disposal.

Rare and unrecognised species of whales that die on our beaches can be identified by the Australian Museum. Rather than trucking the whole smelly carcass, the head is sufficient for comparison with their collection of skulls.  To avoid the shocking prospect of a response to the first stroke of chainsaw-decapitation, vets may be called-on to declare a whale dead, or euthanase those beyond help.

Declaring death

Smaller whales, dead for a few hours, are easier to assess: sunken eyes, with rigor mortis of jaw, pectroal fins, and tongue.  A massive beast, exhausted, dehydrated, and possibly lapsing in and out of consciousness, is another matter.

Being certain the heart has stopped, deep inside a 2-tonne slab of meat, blubber, and bone, is not always straightfoward.  Stethascopes aren’t really designed to detect the weak heartbeat of a dying whale. The rise and fall of chest with respiration can be subtle, and looking for excursion of cotton wool, held to blowhole, may help.

Arterial pulses, buried deep under blubber, are similarly remote.  Blood vessels under the tongue may be accessible and hint at life.  Blink and pupillary response to light may confirm life; unresponsive, dilated pupils suggestive but not a certain sign of death.   The final test is response to painful stimulus (not the chainsaw).

Inducing death

Those still alive, but too weak to be saved, require euthanasia . This can be challenging for several reasons.

Apart from a well-aimed, large calibre bullet, euthanasia by drug overdose is the only humane was to go.  This is easy for beasts under 100kg, feasible for those up to 500kg, but if heavier, things get problematic. Unless using highly concentrated drugs designed for darting elephants, like etorphine, volumes become large and expensive, especially if delivered inefficiently.  A 3-tonne whale may require an entire litre bottle of pentobarbitone, equivalent to the annual consumption of the most euthanasia-happy of veterinary hospitals.

The faster a drug gets to heart and brain, the better, so IV admistration is always favoured, although accessing the vascular compartment is tricky. To preserve body heat, martine mammals are wrapped in dense layer of fat that varies from 1 to 8″ in thickness, depending on age, species and state of health. Finding a vein is no easier a task than sticking a morbidly obese human. Drop the blood pressure with dehydration and shock, and IV injection may be out of the question altogether.

Veins in the tail can be more accessible, but dangerous to stick if the whale is still strong; those under the tongue are a possibility in patients too weak to resist.

The vet may resort to intraperitoneal injection.  Slower, but no less humane, the whale gradually becomes groggy, comatose, then dies peacefully.  3-inch hypodermic needles are not something vets routinely carry, and finding a technique to deliver drug into abdominal cavity is an issue.

Those with medical experience may question: ‘Why not just inject into blubber?’  Subcutaneous fat in whales has a very different structure to ours and Mike Fitzgerald, Alstonville Vet, describes injecting into blubber as no easier than injecting into car tyre.

Blubber thickness may become less of an issue in the future, as Japanese whale ‘research’ (aka sushi harvest) has revealed that whales are getting thinner at an alarming rate.  Proabably due to dwindling fish stocks, they may end up starved rather than eaten into extinction.


Letting nature do its thing, leaving a massive dead whale to rot, could take months. The grotesque spectacle and smell of several tonnes of decaying marine creature compels most tourist towns to bury their dead whales in deep sand.  Our cetacean graveyard is between Tyagarah and Brunswick Heads.

In 1970, authorities in Oregon, USA,  experimented with the use of TNT to disperse and accelerate the decomposition of a dead sperm whale….


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One Response to “Dispatching Beached Whales”

  1. That is very insightful. It gave me a number of ideas and I’ll be writing them on my web site eventually. I’m bookmarking your blog and I’ll be back. Thanks again!

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