What Causes a Dead Whale to Explode?

Exploding WhaleIt’s a topical question – a gruesome one, but topical nonetheless. If you’ve been following the story of the blue whale that washed up on a river in Newfoundland, Canada, you’ll know that this huge creature’s corpse is causing quite the nautical nuisance. Newspaper headlines and twitter feeds have been bubbling over with fears the marine giant ‘might explode’. But could this really happen? Yes, and it’s all to do with how a whale’s body decomposes after death.

Upon shuffling off this mortal coil, the bacteria inside any animal begin to multiply and break down soft tissue in a process called ‘putrefaction’. A prime candidate for this process is a nasty little microorganism called Clostridium perfringens , its name derives from the Latin word for ‘to violate’. (It is also a cousin of the well know hospital superbug, Clostridium difficile.) As the body decomposes, gas is produced, which is why corpses tend to bloat. (Not that I’m speaking from firsthand experience.)

Normally, this swelling causes a small tear in the skin through which the gas can escape, or it simply leaks away with time. Whale skin, however, is particularly thick and tough. As a result, pressure can build up inside the dead animal until it eventually explodes out of the carcass. The gases responsible are usually carbon dioxide, foul-smelling sulphur gases and methane (which is flammable).

Just imagine blowing into a balloon until it pops. Now multiply that effect by a million, add some partially rotting whale organs, and you get something similar to what happened to this poor sperm whale in the Faroe Islands last November.

Now that’s what I call ‘going out with a bang’.


Image sources Funny Whale

Article by Ross Harper

May 6, 2014

A biologist straight out of Cambridge University, Ross spent two years heading his own technology start-ups: BuyMyFace.com and Wriggle Ltd. As he begins his neuroscience PhD at UCL, Ross is living proof that you can take the boy out of the lab, but not the other way around. Between devising his latest crazy schemes, Ross makes an effort to eat (pizza), sleep (two pillows), and exercise (skiing/rugby/swimming). Follow him on Twitter @refharper.

Back To Top

One thought on “What Causes a Dead Whale to Explode?”

Leave Your Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *