How to move a 30-ton whale carcass

(Picture: Supplied)
(Picture: Supplied)

Cape Town - "I feel like a beached whale" is a common complaint after the festive season gorging, but would you need four bulldozers and a flatbed truck to get off the beach?

This is what it took to remove the almost 30-ton humpback whale that washed up on Strand beach in False Bay just before Christmas.

According to Gregg Oelofse, the Western Cape government's manager for environmental resources, a team of up to 40 unsung heroes, mostly from the solid waste department, toiled around the clock to get the carcass off the beach.

"It was a massive job," said Oelofse. "And we had two in a row," he said, referring to the 9m humpback that washed up at nearby Kommetjie two days later, on Christmas day.

Five departments were involved in the removal, using protocols developed for the city about eight years ago.

Disaster management, environmental management, law enforcement, sport, recreation and amenities were called in. Before they could get to work, the national government's department of environmental affairs' whale research unit took samples.

Oelofse said often there were clues to what caused a whale's demise - an injury from a passing container ship, or fishing ropes around the whale's body.

"Five and 10 strandings a year is not so unusual. It's not clear why the animal at Strand died. It was in good condition, there was no sign of illness, or a boat strike, or entanglement in fishing lines."

'I am saddened, but not alarmed'

The removal of the Strand whale took four bulldozers and front-end loaders, a large flatbed truck, and people working through the ebb and flow of two days of tides to get the carcass off the rocks, off the beach, and on to the truck. Strand's Beach Road was closed for the grim procession.

"Twenty-five to 30 tons of blubber is hard to move," said Oelofse, adding that at one point the whale's tail snapped from being dragged up the beach.

Once the whale carcass was on the truck, it was strapped down and stabilised for the slow 50km trek, with an escort, to the Vissershok landfill site. There it was buried in a massive hole prepared to the environment department's legal and health specifications.

In the Western Cape, none of the whale's body parts were allowed to be used for display or other purposes, said Oelofse.

The removal of the Kommetjie whale took only a day because it was smaller. 

The orca whale which died at Plettenberg Bay on December 17, had plastic bags, a shoe sole, and a yoghurt pot in its stomach.

Dr Gwen Penry, who studies whales, said that in spite of the orca's stomach contents, alarm bells were not yet ringing over the well-being of whales.

"Humpback whales migrate past the South African coast every year, and there is bound to be some kind of natural mortality with old age. I am saddened, but I am not alarmed," she said.

But, factors like seismic exploration still had to be monitored. This involved looking for oil and gas under the ocean floor, using intense sonar and airguns.

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