Explosions on the Beach
There are three bluewhale carcasses on beaches in Newfoundland and people are worried that they’re going to explode at any minute. I hope someone sets up a WebCam.
Every time I see another article or video breathlessly explaining what’s going on inside the whales that makes them expand so and what this means for the ever-increasing chances of explosion, I think of sending off an email suggesting they watch the second episode in Season One of Inside Nature’s Giants. The one about the fin whale.
But I should start from the beginning. I’m a geek who geeks out about a lot of different things. Nature is high on the list and so is finding out how things work. In a stroke of genius, The Boy got me the first season of Inside Nature’s Giants. This is a British show in which veterinarians and biologists perform dissections on large animals, paying particular attention to unique parts of each animal and the evolutionary history or reason for the development of certain bodily structures. It’s fascinating. What also makes the show so wonderful is that the people involved are really, really excited about their job.
For some reason, we watched the first season out of order, first seeing the dissections done in a lecture theater with an audience of veterinary students. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who loved the show, because subsequent series have higher production values and went into the field. So there we were, having seen the first three episodes of (Big Cats, elephant and giraffe) and we started up the fin whale, not realizing we’d saved the best for last.
Fin whales not being easily transportable, this was the first of the field trips. The entire dissection happened on the beach whereupon a whale had beached itself and departed this world. This episode also saw the introduction of anatomist Joy Reidenberg. And this is when I fell in love. Because Joy lives up to her name. She is a short woman who exudes enthusiasm, excitement and joy. Yes, even when she is crawling around inside a whale carcass (maybe especially then. They also did an episode about a Sperm Whale).
Joy explained all about the methane and other gases that are being produced by the decomposition process and showed a video of what happens if you just start hacking into a swollen whale carcass. People on a Danish beach had crawled on top of the dead whale and started cutting. And the thing exploded. Unfortunately, I can’t find that particular video on YouTube, but here’s one from the Faroe Islands from last year (I will admit to playing that many, many times). The trick, Joy said, is to cut many smaller (about 1 foot) incisions along the belly of the whale, allowing the gases to exit, gradually relieving the pressure. As the gases emerged out of the slits, you heard masses of whistling sounds.
She called it a whale fart symphony.
The producers of the show weren’t idiots. As of season two, Joy was a permanent member of the team. And what a team it was! Highly competent individuals with a deep expertise in their topic and an enthusiasm for knowledge, together they were contagious. A pattern soon emerged. The show was presented by Mark Evans, with evolutionary commentary by Richard Dawkins. Simon Watt, an evolutionary biologist, got elected to be the guinea pig in many of the interesting experiments. Although you almost felt sorry for him, he also added many of the laughs. Yes, there were a lot of laughs in this series. As well as multiple nudges for deep thinking, expansion of your knowledge base and a frequent sense of wonder at the incredible developments nature makes.
Alas, there were only four seasons, but given the popularity and the fact that the homepage still exists, I have high hopes for more.
I learned a lot from this series. I learned about the insides of large animals, how they grow, how they digest and how they have evolved features that make them uniquely qualified for a particularly small niche. I also learned that exploding whale carcasses are hysterically funny to me.
Aside from my fervent hope that someone will install a WebCam to capture the potential explosion in Newfoundland, I also hope that the experts from the Royal Ontario Museum that are headed out there to study the whales will know Joy’s trick. Three carcasses each adding their own contributions should make for one magical whale fart symphony.