The huge sea creature that washed up in Indonesia has been identified – but that doesn't make it any less horrifying.
Experts told The Independent that the monster is almost certainly some kind of whale carcass that has decomposed beyond easy recognition. More specifically, it has been identified as a baleen whale – which includes the blue whale and the humpback whale.
Scientists made that identification based on the parts of the whale that can be seen, which includes the presence of baleen – the filter system inside the mouth. But it won't be possible to tell what kind of baleen whale it is, simply because the carcass is too rotten and decomposed.
There had been some speculation that the beast was a giant squid. But giant squid don't have bones, and they can be very clearly seen in the pictures of the organism, said Rob Deaville, who is project manager for the UK Cetacean Stranding Investigation Programme (CSIP) at Zoological Society of London.
Deaville's work involves responding on behalf of the government to beached whales in the UK, finding out what they are and how they died, and helping to get rid of them.
Asked what he would do if such a beast washed up near him, Deaville said he would "try and avoid being near there, given how decomposed it was". That decomposition means that the animal is likely to be very disgusting – but also that the work done by CSIP would be difficult, because there wouldn't be any obvious way of identifying it.
Richard Barnes, a world-renowned expert on coastal marine ecology and invertebrate zoology, said that it was hard to know exactly what it was from the pictures. He said he would bet on it being a whale carcass, but that was "really only a best guess" because of the state of the creature.
"It doesn’t seem to have too many of its 'in life' features on show, being just a mass of blubber!" he told The Independent. "So, I’m simply going by what whale carcasses look like after they’ve been stripped of their outer skin by sharks etc."
If such specimen washed up in the UK, Deaville would guess that it had been dead for weeks, he said. But the warmer waters in Indonesia may help decomposition happen more quickly, and so the animal could have been dead for less time than the horrifying sight suggests.
The decomposition means that it isn't possible to see how the whale might have died. Threats to baleen whales include being struck by ships or getting entangled in gear, but checking whether that happens requires the whale to be in some kind of identifiable shape.
With such a decomposed specimen, it might be possible to take a piece of skin and conduct genetic analysis to work out what species it was. It might also be possible to work out what species live in the area, find out how long they are, and then compare that measurement with the sea beast's length.
Ordinarily, whales fall to the depths of the water when they die. That can be a helpful process because the whales serve as an oasis of marine life to form around them.
Beaching may seem like a sadder place for a whale to end up, especially since it is such an obvious reminder that they have died. But Deaville cautioned that such stories can also be positive – there has been an increased number of beachings in the UK, for instance, which is likely because there are more whales around after commercial whaling was outlawed.
Now the whale could either be brought onto land for disposal through incineration or landfill, or – if the area was sufficiently isolated – left to decompose in the water. The beast shouldn't be pushed back out to sea because it would pose a danger for any passing ships, Deaville cautioned.
Stories of horrifying beached sea beasts tend to come out about once a year, Deaville said, and they almost inevitably turn out just to be the remains of a decomposed whale. That has happened before in places including the UK.
But such beachings can reveal new kinds of sea creatures – scientists like Deaville are still finding new species of whales and that can sometimes be just from a small piece of their body washed up on a beach.
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