Skull mystery

Why do whales beach themselves?
Image credit: Igor Francetic

It started with a dead whale.

The John Muir Trust owns the beach at Sandwood Bay in Sutherland where the hapless animal was stranded or had died at sea before being washed up, and had been patiently waiting for the animal to decompose sufficiently enough to donate the skull to National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, but some enterprising soul beat them to it.

The 45kg (99lbs) skull of the northern bottlenose whale was taken from the beach in August. A couple of months went by before it turned up again, this time on Cocklawburn Beach near Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland. Somehow the skull had travelled over 300 miles to its new location. Where it had been in the intervening time remains a mystery but one can imagine that whoever took it in the first place was probably not going to win 'beachcomber of the year' award at home.

"Is there any chance that you are, you know, going to remove this darned thing out of the living room?"

"But why? It's a magnificent specimen and very rare!"

"Yes, but, you see it stinks the house out, the dog's been gnawing the end off and I can't see the tv. Get rid of it."

But the skull was obviously getting used to its new-found freedom and before it could be returned to Scotland it disappeared again.

All of this raises interesting possibilities about the state of mind of beach-walkers. In my day we used to be happy with a couple of cockle shells and some sand-washed glass beads. A metre-long whale skull just wouldn't have made Mum happy. And people are still at it. Just recently, a pod of 10 whales beached on the Yorkshire coast, yet within days someone had removed one of the deceased animals' jaw bone.

I did a bit of research to find out how often the possibility of finding the remains of whales happens and as it turns out it is rather a frequent occurrence in Scotland. The Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme is not, as its name suggests, an organisation dedicated to dragging whales onto beaches but is in fact a repository of reports about marine animals who have ended their lives as a large blob on our shores. Their annual reports are not really up to date, so the most recent one dates to 2018. In it they state:

From the 1st January to 31st December 2018, 932 reports of 937 marine animals were reported to the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS), comprising 499 seals, 435 cetaceans, 2 basking shark and single marine turtle.

Source: SMASS_Annual_Report_2018.pdf (

And these are just the ones that are found. Quite a lot more may have quietly been washed out to sea. It is a sad state of affairs that we really have little idea why something that weighs in the order of tons and can only support itself in water one day decides to make the leap to land animal. It rarely ends well, even if found still alive and with the goodwill of hundreds of volunteers desperately trying to coax them back to sea, it appears virtually impossible to re-float the marine equivalent of a bus. But what I find astonishing is the apparent apathy with regards to why these magnificent mammals do it. One report blamed the following reasons:

  • Changes in water temperature

  • Irregularities in whales’ echolocation

  • Geomagnetic disturbances

  • Errors made in navigation

  • Hunting too close to shore

  • Sonar interference

  • Inclement weather


Of course, human interference also gets a look-in, the same article suggesting that sonar can cause some whales to surface too quickly. Other reports have found huge quantities of plastic or fishing gear in the stomachs of dead whales. Then there is all the other pollution we gleefully discharge into the water which, even if discharged on land, will eventually make its' way to the sea.

So what do you do with your newly-dead whale cluttering up your beach? Well, as we have seen you can simply allow people to take bits away. You could also use them as a photo opportunity: people were seen posing with their kids atop dead whales in Yorkshire recently.

What about blowing them up? Yes, it has been tried.

November the 12th 1970. A dead sperm whale was found washed up onto the beach near Florence, Oregon. With an estimated mass of around 8 tons, the authorities were obviously a trifle annoyed at the inconvenience and asked for it to be removed in the quickest way possible: with dynamite - about 250 Kilos of the stuff.

Unfortunately what no-one had though of was where all the blubber was going to go. With the cameras rolling, men in hard hats dutifully placed large stacks of explosive around the stricken beast, then retired to what they believed was a safe distance. It wasn't.

At the moment of contact, spectators and newsmen alike watched first in awe as huge chunks of former whale accelerated into the sky, then with mild concern as some of the smaller pieces began to land amongst them, then finally with horror as said huge chunks began thudding throughout the town, smashing windows plastering vehicles and crushing the roof of a parked car.

When it finally stopped raining blubber, the townsfolk timorously peered out from the cover of of whatever they had managed to find only to discover that the bulk of the animal was still firmly in place on the beach.

A video of the moment can be seen here.

I don't know if there is a moral to this story but as the newscaster who reported on the event reportedly said: The sand dunes there were covered with spectators and land-loving newsmen, shortly to become land-blubber newsmen. For the blast blasted blubber beyond all believable bounds.

Unfortunately, it seems our fascination for these animals doesn't really extend to decent burials at sea.