Not for the faint of heart

On our way out of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge a few weeks back, we spent a good ten minutes talking to a couple of women from the Midwest and Oregon who happened to be traveling around the country with their husbands after having sold their homes. We had a nice chat about conservation and restoration, and how the two of them had been academics.

We parted ways, at which point we came across another interesting character: a man who claimed to be working for the National Audubon Society taking photos of wildlife, namely birds, in the salt marshes. He said he had been a Marine Biologist and stressed the importance of having a wide skill set. His had helped him stay afloat – there wasn’t always a lot of money in Marine Biology, and having photography as a hobby paid off during the lulls in his main career.

He spoke to us about a trip he took with his wife during the summer in which they encountered a family that claimed to have fields and fields of Ginseng, which for any of you that are familiar with the plant know that it sells for a lot money. Apparently a lot of people in the mountains of NC (and probably elsewhere) make such claims to impress their friends, so take the story as you will.

Anyway, once we left his company we headed back to our car to stow our seeds and press our herbarium specimens. While getting everything packed up, one of the women we spoke to earlier came up to us and exclaimed, “have you two heard about the whale”? We obviously didn’t know what she was talking about since we had been in an interdune marsh all afternoon, so we asked what she meant. A whale had washed ashore and she and her friend went to see it, as there were many people stopping on the side of the road, pulling out their cameras, and hiking the dunes to gawk.

We assumed it was probably still alive, and maybe there would be a need for our new Marine Biologist friend to have a look at it and contact the necessary authorities to help it back into the ocean, if that’s what it needed. Much to our dismay, the whale was dead. Very dead. Like d-e-a-d dead. It must’ve been sitting there on the shore for well over a week, rotting in the sun and being eaten, inside and out, by who knows what.

The smell was awful, for one thing, and the sight of it was pretty bad too. For those of you that have smelled a dead animal before, but are not quite sure what a dead whale might smell like, imagine this: take a dead deer, for example, maybe roadkill. Stuff the body with all the seaweed you can find, throw a few fish in there for good measure, then let the corpse do its thing on the side of the road for a while in the heat. That’s about what this whale smelled like.

Once we got over the smell, we took a good look at this thing. The skin was mottled and stretched, full of holes like a balloon that’s been blown up too far and is wearing thinner and thinner. The entire back end was gone. The tail and what seemed like half the distance from the tail to the dorsal fins had been torn off. We’re not sure if it was a someone or a something that took it, but it made for an interesting view of the vertebrae. The head was mostly eaten away, but the big wide tongue remained.

Neither one of us knows a whole lot about whales, so maybe someone else can enlighten us on what type of whale it was. I’ll include one picture for that purpose, and I’ll spare the ones of the rotting flesh dripping from the skeleton.

We see a lot of interesting things on our travels. Maybe one of these days we’ll get to see a live whale!

Whale corpseTill next time.

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