Another beached whale, another beach burial
This article has been updated
Exactly three weeks ago a whale washed up on Nobby’s Beach at Port Macquarie and foiled removal efforts by authorities to drag it back out to sea. While towing it seaward the carcass broke apart so the local council consulted the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) who decided the best solution was to bury the whale.
Two days later the whale was buried in a five metre hole on Nobby’s Beach.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, a 5.2 metre baby Humpback whale beached itself at South Ballina Beach with the carcass buried yesterday. Again the decision was made by the NPWS.
According to locals the whale was buried 150 metres from the shoreline yet local surfers have expressed concern. This is a community that’s grappled with increased shark activity (read: attacks) over the last five years. They have reason to be wary.
Beach burial is a favoured means of disposal for cetaceans that wash ashore. It’s the quickest and cheapest method as it allows organisms in the sand to slowly devour the corpse without smell or unsightly mess.
However, it’s a contentious method as the decaying remains mix with groundwater leachate and flows toward the ocean acting as slow release berley for sharks - at least that's the anecdotal explanation. However, organisations such as the NPWS choose this method because there’s no scientific proof that sharks are attracted to dead whales.
The Port Macquarie whale being buried on Nobby's Beach
After the Port Macquarie whale was buried I called the local council, the NPWS, and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage to find out the protocol for removing dead whales. After many hours of listening to two chord muzak I finally got through to a media person at the Office of Environment and Heritage and asked a series of questions about whale removal. This was their reply in full:
“Landowners or managers are responsible for the disposal of marine animals that wash up or die on their beaches. Towing was attempted at Port Macquarie in a coordinated effort with council and marine services but abandoned when sea conditions became dangerous and the carcass started to disintegrate.”
Four questions answered in two sentences, and if you think it’s vague you’re not alone. Yet it’s all I could get on the matter.
Meanwhile, up in Port Macquarie local surfers forced the council’s hand. They called a meeting and made presentations that expressed their concern that a whale buried on the beach would present a serious danger to surfers and swimmers. Port Macquarie-Hastings council complied and exhumed the whale.
It's just been reported that Ballina Shire Council will also dig up the whale remains and move it.
After the meeting, Port Macquarie-Hastings Council spokesman Matt Rogers made a poignant and cleverly crafted statement to the ABC: "There's no admission mistakes have been made, the council simply responded to a perception in the community.”
In other words, the Council admitted no error in burying the whale. And to be precise they made no error. That's because there’s no scientific proof that sharks are attracted to buried whales. Importantly, it’s not that scientific evidence disproves the theory, rather that no scientific evidence exists. The theory has never been tested.
So surfers might perceive that dead whales attract sharks, yet till it’s scientifically proven that buried whales attract sharks then digging a hole will remain an option however reckless it sounds to you or I.
Fortunately surfers may not have to wait much longer for some kind of resolution. James Tucker is a PhD student at Southern Cross University and he’s one year into a three year study determining whether buried whales attract sharks.
"This study is a world first,” said Tucker “We do know that sharks commonly scavenge whale carcasses that are floating out to sea, but whether that applies to buried whales we just don't know.”
“We are trying to work out what's coming out of the carcass ...what chemical and biological reaction from microbes are happening underneath that carcass in that 'plume' and therefore what's coming out into the ocean as an end product.”
Despite two incidents in three weeks, the beaching of whales is still considered rare, yet from now on each such incident is guaranteed to attract attention from local surfers. If they can band together such as Port Macquarie and now Ballina surfers did they can be their own agents of change, but everyone else will have to wait till 2019 when James Tucker delivers his findings.
Postscript: Swellnet has been gently reminded that a nine-metre Humpback whale was also buried at Kilcunda in late September. That makes it three whale beachings and burials in three weeks. Rare?