Hvalreki really should have been the title of my last post. It is my favorite Icelandic word, which I learned visiting that country almost five years ago. It translates to “windfall” in English, and, like that word, originally referred to a concrete event. But where a windfall is some fruit blown from the high branches, a hvalreki is much grander. It literally means “beached whale.”
Back in the old days in Iceland, a hvalreki really was a huge stroke of good luck. (“Olav, come quick! It’s a hvalreki! We can eat this winter!”) For some marine mammal acousticians, it still is. (“Ted! Come quick! It’s a hvalreki! We can ship its head to Utah to CT scan it for a finite-element model!”) But most of the time, these days, a hvalreki is more trouble than it is worth.
That was the opinion of the town of Brookhaven, New York, this past October, when a nearly 60-foot long fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) washed up at Smith Point County Park on the south shore of Long Island. In a memorable break from my normally-scheduled work, I actually got to go down with my advisor and help the experts from the Riverhead Foundation conduct the necropsy.
Getting up close to a whale, even a decomposing, shark-bitten one on the beach, is just as impressive as you would imagine. The animal is huge. It smells terrible. This whale had been spotted floating offshore by the Coast Guard a few days before, already bloated. It arrived at Smith Point with its intestines pushing out of shark bites in its belly, and when we cut into the body cavity, gallons of dark slime flowed out onto the sand. It took me about three showers to get the scent of dead whale off my skin and hair, although it did moderate from “rank” to “musty” after the first wash. The foulies we wore, now hanging in the lab’s closet, still smell faintly of whale, even after a bleach bath and sun-drying. Bad as the stink was, it would almost seem wrong for such a huge, majestic animal to smell better than abjectly terrible.
The whale had a twelve-foot bruise on its back and side. It was most likely killed by a ship strike. He was buried in an enormous hole right on the beach.