Just what do you do with a 30-foot whale, literally dead in the water, tossing and turning in the surf and high tides below the bluffs of Isla Vista?
Some residents living above – and downwind from – the dead sperm whale that washed up on shore yesterday hocked water balloons at the bloated target. Earlier in the day, a group of researchers from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History fruitlessly tried to take tissue samples from the mammal. And in the afternoon, a cluster of surfers sitting in the water no more than a few hundred feet away from the floating mass ignored the whale altogether and focused on the beach breaks.
The carcass, which washed onto shore below the 6800 block of Del Playa Drive on Sunday, has since made its way down the beach – closer to the 6600 block – because of high tides. According to Cliffside residents, the whale may have washed away, though the Daily Nexus was unable to confirm as of late Monday night whether this was true. Although whales have turned up on local beaches before, it is unusual to see a sperm whale in the area, said Peter Howorth, director of the Santa Barbara Marine and Mammal Center. Sperm whales tend to stay in deeper waters.
“There have only been a few sightings of sperm whales going through the Santa Barbara Channel,” Howorth said. “They’re more commonly found beyond the Channel Islands.”
Why the animal washed up on shore is unknown, and researchers hope to learn the reason from a necropsy today. Krista Fahy, the associate curator of vertebrate zoology at the Museum of Natural History, said tissue samples could help determine how and why the whale died. But wielding an 18-inch blade and trying to lance off a chunk of whale while the animal is being tossed around in strong surf is a dangerous task, Fahy said, so researchers will be back today during lower tides to collect samples, pending the carcass actually being there.
Fahy was not optimistic about the samples, and said the whale is likely rotting.
“[The whale] is probably about three weeks passed,” Fahy said. “It’s unlikely the tissue samples we harvest will give us any meaningful results.”
In the meantime, however, the decomposing whale has given rise to a new pastime for residents: dead whale watching.
At least 30 people braved the high tides at 5:00 p.m. yesterday to get a closer look at the whale. Some stood on rocks or ankle deep in water taking cell phone pictures, while many more enjoyed a drier vantage point from the beach accesses above.
Fikaya Feme, a third-year political science and anthropology major, said she followed her friends down to the rocks near the whale to get a closer look at the beached mammal. She said the spectacle of seeing a whale drew her down to the ocean – although she admitted disappointment upon seeing the carcass.
“No, it’s not a nice beached whale,” Feme said. “But it is a whale.”
How long the whale stays on the beach, subject to onlookers and scavengers alike, all relies on the County of Santa Barbara Public Works Dept., Howorth said. The whale cannot be disposed of until the tides are lower.
“It really depends on the time the animal is accessible to [Public Works workers],” Howorth said.
Removal techniques depend on the situation, but Fahy said workers will likely cut the whale up into smaller pieces and either bury them in the sand, or drive them off to a land fill. Howorth said he believes it is unlikely they will bury the animal on the beach, since there are rocks deeper down.
The other option, Fahy said, is to hire a boat to carry the animal out to sea and “hope it doesn’t wash onto someone else’s beaches.”
Officials are worried for the safety of the whale’s teeth. Early Monday morning, Fahy and another witness said the Isla Vista Foot Patrol arrested a man with a sledgehammer, who was apparently trying to knock the teeth out of the sperm whale and take them as a keepsake.
It is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to be in possession of any piece or part of the whale, Fahy said, but people often collect sperm whale teeth, which are particularly appealing to collectors because of their length.
“I think people find [the teeth] kind of attractive,” Fahy said. “I’m just not sure what motivates somebody that tries to hack the teeth out of an animal.”