whale makes landfall, welcome party ensues

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By luck of the tidal lottery, Seahurst Park in Burien has become the site of a brand-new biodynamic beach feature: the 52-foot long carcass of a fin whale. These krill-killing behemoths rarely venture within sight of the Washington coast; it’s rarer still to spot one in Puget Sound. Stranded fin whales are big news around here.

Nicknamed the “greyhound of the sea” for its 25-mile-per-hour cruising speed, fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) are rather superlative creatures. Adults are some of the largest animals Earth has ever known, reaching more than 80 feet in length and weighing 70 tons. The males’ monotonous song, which can last from seven to 14 minutes, is one of the lowest-frequency sounds made by any animal. The only thing bigger and deeper-voiced than the fin whale is the blue whale, and even then, it’s not by much.

News of the stranded whale spread quickly. Hundreds flocked to the beach to gawk at the corpse, which became fully exposed with the ebbing tide. Yesterday afternoon, a steadily growing line of cars snaked down to Seahurst’s lower parking lot, only to be turned away for lack of space. The drivers wore pained expressions, their furrowed brows shadowing beady, opportunistic eyes. People were parking in fire lanes and drop-off zones. Those that had managed to find a spot were slowly making their way south along the sun-soaked beach, toward the gathering crowd.

Washed in with Saturday’s tide, the carcass is remarkable for its stark visibility. It is undeniably the main attraction on the beach, an instant landmark, bigger than just about everything else nearby. Its prow-shaped head faces the water, as if awaiting high tide to nose back into the waves. The tail is missing, shorn off, perhaps—in life the whale’s body likely extended 60 feet or more. Approaching the corpse, its advanced state of decay becomes apparent: fetid odors waft up with the breeze, emanating from its cavernous maw and gouged-out eye sockets. The jaws, arched and massive, are worn down to the bone; its flippers are in tatters. Hideous lacerations mar its back and flank.  Much of the skin there is flayed off, exposing white blubber and pinkish flesh beneath. According to Cascadia Research Collective, an Olympia-based marine mammal advocacy group, these injuries were probably the result of a fatal run-in with shipping traffic, a tragically common demise for such huge, graceful creatures. In the last 11 years, ten fin whales have stranded on Washington beaches; of those ten, eight were positively identified as having been killed by boats.

The Seahurst whale had been dead a week or more before stranding, experts judged, its bloated form buoyed along into the sound like a cadaverous balloon. (It may have been pushed in on the prow of a ship—though it’s curious how no one on board noticed the 65-foot figurehead bent across the bow. Probably nobody cared.) The whale’s death-stretched skin looked and felt like a black wrestling mat: smooth, firm, and slightly elastic. People ran their hands along its sides, prodded its flippers, traced the lines of its pleats as they coursed down its throat. Many wrinkled their noses at the smell. Some enterprising weirdoes had even taken knives to the whale’s teeth, slicing off fibrous blades of baleen as souvenirs. It was a seaside spectacle, a freak show oddity for most. It was a great excuse to come to the beach.

A number of people appeared awed by the whale’s presence, as if it radiated some mysterious power from worlds distant. Children in particular were hushed, almost reverent as they sidled up to the carcass. Most of them wanted to touch it, despite their parents’ admonishments. Their desire, it seemed, was to make tangible this otherworldly aberration washed up on the beach—to make sure that this stinking, rotting, hulking thing before their eyes was actually real.

The ocean is full of surprises. Every day yields something new and exciting from its depths. Often it’s just a matter of knowing when and where to look, but sometimes, for reasons unknown—let’s call it deep-sea serendipity—the tide hauls some fantastical thing right onto your back doorstep.

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