The beached whale is clearly in an advanced state of decomposition and likely has been dead for anywhere from two weeks to several months, Werth and Flannery said. The decomposition, and the gases produced by the associated bacteria, have inflated segments of the carcass like a balloon, Werth said.
“It must stink to high heaven,” Werth told Live Science.
Baleen whales typically have many bacteria in their guts that produce gas, Werth said. These keep reproducing once the whale dies, creating a foul stench and inflating the bodies, he said.
“That’s yet another reason you don’t want to be close to these things, not because it’s a scary, spooky creature, but [because] it would just be releasing some pretty foul, noxious gases,” Werth said.
Though smelling the decomposing whale is not dangerous per se, people shouldn’t be bathing in or drinking the water nearby, he added.
Normally, when a massive whale dies, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where the corpse serves as a feast for a year or two for an entire ecosystem of worms, hagfish, sharks and other marine creatures, Werth said.
However, if a ship swiped the animal, causing internal injuries that did not allow gases to escape, or if the whale had a bacterial infection that produced huge amounts of gases, the animal could inflate like a balloon — enough to float to shore, Werth said. On the other hand, this ill-fated whale may simply have died in warm waters, which tend to fuel more bacterial growth. That, too, could rapidly produce enough gas after death to make the animal float rather than sink, Werth said.
“If it dies in really cold, polar waters, there’s a greater chance it will sink,” Werth said.
This phenomenon is not unique to whales: Two human bodies that presumably were submerged during colder weather popped up in a Central Park pond in New York during warmer weather, Werth said.
Tides or currents may explain why the floating whale carcass made it ashore, Werth added.