What are you normally doing at 4:00 p.m. on a Wednesday? Possibly finishing up at school or getting ready for the last hour of work. It’s highly unlikely that you’re stumbling across the corpse of a giant sea monster. But that’s exactly what happened to locals near the small English town of Hartland Quay in March 2017.
You’ll find Hartland Quay on the coast of Devon in the south-east of England. It’s along a stretch of shore known as the North Devon Heritage Coast. It is a place renowned for its stunning natural beauty. And now it has also found fame thanks to the carcass of a huge aquatic beast washing up.
Aside from the understandable wonder and curiosity the discovery generated, the sheer size of the creature that residents spotted sparked off some concern. After all, the remains of creatures this big can cause all sorts of problems as they decompose.
While the corpse was first spotted on the afternoon of Wednesday March 8, by the following day, the sea had moved it several hundred feet along the coast. That’s pretty impressive. Especially when you take into consideration the sheer size of the creature that had ended its days on the rocks beneath the Hartland Quay Hotel and Pub.
The carcass was around 35 feet long – around the length of a coach. Naturally, as soon as the discovery was made, locals picked up the phone and called the authorities to report what they’d found.
The British government runs a hotline that lets people report sightings of whales and dolphins. And the people of Hartland Quay were pretty sure that that’s what they’d discovered on the beach.
Judging by the size and shape of the carcass, experts said it was likely that the discovery was a very special kind of whale. Speaking to British newspaper Metro, a spokesperson for Whale and Dolphin Conservation UK revealed that the remains that had washed up in Devon could well belong to a fin whale.
Fin whales aren’t just big – they’re enormous. In fact, only the blue whale ranks above them in terms of size. In other words, the fin whale is the second biggest animal on Earth. However, its epic size doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing for the fin.
The fin whale is known to live in the North Atlantic. Unfortunately however, these enormous creatures are considered endangered. There are estimated to be something between 50,000 and 90,000 of the majestic sea mammals remaining. It is reckoned that in the first 80 years of the 20th century, almost 750,000 were hunted and killed by commercial whalers.
In a post on her Facebook page, Cheryl Duerden of British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) explained some of the problems that she faced heading down to the beach to try and identify the dead body. And she also revealed something pretty surprising about what many people consider to be the defining characteristic of the carcass.
The beach where the whale was discovered was mainly made up of jagged rocks. Unsurprisingly, the sea-lashed rock wasn’t the easiest to make it across. And when Duerden arrived at the scene, night had fallen. But she still made it to the whale and gave it the once over.
After studying the carcass, the researcher concluded that the whale may have been dead for a long time. She also took a first stab at classifying what species the body belonged to. And while she suggested it could be a fin whale, the caveat she added to her claim might surprise you.
Because while most people might think that 35 feet is pretty big, when it comes to fin whales, that’s simply not the case. Indeed, the mammals can reach up to 80 feet in length. So when Duerden suggested the corpse could be that of a fin whale, she added that if it was, it was a small one.
She also suggested that there was a chance that the carcass could be another species entirely. According to Duerden, the body could have belonged to a large minke whale. However, at 35 feet long, it would have been one of the largest minke ever found. These creatures usually only grow to around 30 feet in length.
Duerden also warned locals that they should keep well clear of the carcass. Whales can carry diseases that can be passed on to humans, she explained, so getting up close and personal with the rotting corpse of a giant one might not be the best idea.
On top of that, in the United Kingdom it’s actually illegal to take away any piece of a whale that has had the misfortune of being washed up onshore. So even if your curiosity gets the better of you, keeping your distance from any giant sea creature that washes up is definitely the best idea. And there’s another very good reason to steer clear of a whale carcass.
Dead whales are prone to explode, believe it or not. As the contents of a dead whale’s stomach rots, gases are released. Unable to escape through the creatures thick layers of blubber and skin, these gases can build up until the corpse bursts. Things can get pretty messy.
Further complicating matters in this case was the location of the carcass, lodged among sharp rocks at the edge of the ocean. All that left Torridge Council, which governs the area around Hartland Quay, with a clear-up operation that was expected to be “very expensive,” according to Steven Marsh from the BDMLR.
Speaking to the BBC, Marsh went on to add that while the whale find was uncommon, its discovery wasn’t unprecedented. Indeed, around five or six fin whales turn up on British shores every year. Most of them are dead by the time they are washed up. They have usually died at sea, and a combination of factors leads to their carcasses ending up onshore.
And while Duerden was sad to see such a majestic creature brought so low, she was still enthused about the epic find. “Very sad to see it flopped over and lodged amongst the rocks and blood in the rock pools, but to see a whale in its entirety is still pretty awesome,” she said.