Community debate has raged over the burial of a dead 12 metre, 18 tonne humpback whale on a NSW beach.
The whale carcass, which could not be returned to sea or lifted off the Port Macquarie beach and taken to landfill, is now laying under the sand on the popular dog-friendly beach.
Residents are concerned the carcass, buried by Port Macquarie-Hastings Council on Monday, will cause significant environmental issues and attract sharks.
The adult whale was freed by Marine Rescue Port Macquarie on Sunday, September 17 off nearby Shelly Beach. It is believed the whale travelled from as far as Tasmania trapped in the rope and was exhausted.
It struggled throughout the night to return out to sea before dying and washing up close to shore at Nobbys Beach on Monday morning. It was buried late Monday night.
Council says it had not other option
Port Macquarie-Hastings Council made the decision to bury the carcass in consultation with National Parks and Wildlife Service and ORCCA.
Council says the decision was considered a last resort.
It said the whale was caught among rocks and was not able to be moved. Marine Rescue deemed the prevailing and forecast winds made conditions too dangerous and further attempts were abandoned.
Getting an excavator down on to the beach was in itself a risky operation noting the terrain, and the fact that Nobbys Beach is inaccessible to vehicles, council added.
The whale began to break up when moved.
“Council acknowledges concerns being voiced today around public safety and I want to assure our community that the decision to bury the whale was not taken lightly,” council director Matt Rogers said.
“Having assessed all other options to dispose of the carcass with National Parks and Wildlife Service staff, an excavator was manoeuvred onto the beach (and) a hole was dug into clay material at the back of the beach. The carcass was buried with two metres of clay and sand cover.”
Acting mayor, Lisa Intemann said the whole situation was regrettable.
“I understand the whale died after being caught up in fishing ropes, the effect of which caused its demise,” she said.
“Council consulted with all appropriate agencies and has adopted the only reasonable option in the circumstances.”
What the experts are saying
Community comment swayed greatly toward a removal option with many agreeing the carcass could have been cut down and taken away on a truck.
The greatest concern from local ocean lovers is the potential for the whale’s decomposing carcass, oil and blubber to seep into the ocean, attracting sharks.
Rick Anderson from Rick’s Dive School said it was “100 per cent” the wrong option.
“It was a cheap shortcut. I base that opinion on a lifetime of being in the water in Port Macquarie,” he said.
“All of our swimming beaches from Miners Beach to Town Beach naturally sweep to the north, so anything that is on the beaches or in shore of the river flow is going to keep going around and around for months to years.”
Mr Anderson said that given the size of the whale, he predicts a couple of hundred barrels of oil and blubber would be produced, which could leach into the ocean.
“Big sharks are going to be in Port Macquarie for a while now,” he said.
“I went down in the morning (of September 19) to Shelly Beach and snorkelled, and came face to face with a great white shark.
“If council get down and dig up the bits and pieces that they’ve buried and truck it away, then we have a problem for a few months. If they leave it then we will have a problem for a few years, which is how long it will take for the oils to leach out.”
Fellow lifelong Port Macquarie person, Wayne Hudson, who has a Bachelor of Environmental Science, agreed with Mr Anderson.
“It’s not what I would have done. I understand that they have reasons they’ve buried it, I hope they are valid and good reasons,” he said.
“I’m trying to be positive as well, but it’s one of those funny ones. I’m also worried about the impacts it could have with sharks coming in.
“I’ve read they are attracted (to dead whales), and others saying they aren’t, but there’s no definitive research from what I’ve seen.
“I would have been cautious and assumed it would leach out and attract sharks. Being a tourist and a busy beach town cutting it up and taking it away would have been the best option.”
Mr Hudson is worried it will have a negative impact on businesses, diving groups, tourism and accommodation.
The community has its say
A local of more than 30 years, Craig Watson, started a petition to exhume the carcass. It gained ten pages of signatures in one hour and was presented to council on Tuesday morning.
“From a conservation perspective we have a big debate going on up and down the coast to lessen the risk that protects not only people but the marine life,” he said.
“We have buried an 18 tonne whale in the middle of one of the most popular beaches in a regional tourist hub on the Mid North Coast.
“It is right next door to Flynns Beach, which is the main tourist beach in Port Macquarie and has a very large contingent of nippers training there day in and day out.
“I don’t see any option other than to dig it up, cut it up and cart it away. Either that, or we accept unknown changes for years to come.”
Marine biologist, Kristy Kawaguchi gives her expert opinion
Mrs Kawaguchi is a marine biologist and said that from a biological perspective, the best solution was to take it off shore.
“However the rocks and tide made it difficult for them to do that. It was in a very tough location,” she said.
“I have no input into what they did, but obviously the people involved thought burying it was the best option.
“It is certainly possible that the oil will leach out, and water will go through the sand especially if it rains (but) there is no current solid data that says burying a whale will attract more sharks.”
She said common sense says the carcass would attract predators to our waters if it leaks oil.
“Sharks use their sense of smell to hunt food, they are scavengers, but again there is no solid data that would back that up at this point,” she said.
“Common sense, yes, but data, no. It’s a problem we don’t encounter here often, so it will be a hot topic I would imagine.”
The last incident of a beached whale occurred at Sawtell in June 2017.
The whale could not be returned to sea and was euthanased by authorities on the beach.
Samples of the animal were collected to be used for scientific research while the carcass was taken away and buried under landfill.
Have your say and vote in our poll below