Humpback Whale Inflated Like a Balloon Discovered on Beach, But It’s Apparently ‘Completely Normal’

by Emily Morgan
Photo by: YASUYOSHI CHIBA / Staff

A bloated humpback whale has been discovered on the north side of Malcolm Island in British Columbia. The young female whale, known as Spike, had no apparent external injuries, and rescuers are unsure of how she died.

“The inflation of Spike’s body is completely normal,” said Jackie Hildering. She is a humpback researcher and communications director at the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS). She was also involved in identifying the whale. “It is caused by gas created by decomposition inside the body of the animal…Eventually this gas will find a way to escape and the body will deflate.”

According to experts, this typical deflation results from the slow release of gas from tiny tears in the whale’s skin. However, the whale’s skin will occasionally stretch and appear like a pumped-up balloon. The gas can eventually stretch the skin to the point where it breaks.

A similar incident happened in Taiwan in 2004 when a massive sperm whale exploded on a busy street. In a gruesome incident, buildings and bystanders were showered in the whale’s blood and guts.

However, according to experts, it doesn’t look like Spike will explode any time soon.

“By yesterday evening, the distended belly and throat of this whale had already gone down compared to earlier photos,” Hildering said. As the gas leaves the whale’s body, the whale will sink to the bottom of the ocean floor.

Researchers unsure of how humpback whale died, set to perform necropsy

“We secured Spike to the beach so a necropsy could be performed to try and determine the cause of death,” Hildering said.

She added: “Just like a human autopsy, the body, internal organs [will be] investigated to look for clues. This often includes looking at overall body condition, for evidence of injury, investigating stomach samples, and…to look for diseases, parasites, or other conditions.”

In addition, it’s also hard for researchers to say how many whales die in British Columbia every year.

“Dead whales most often sink and thereby stories of their deaths are often not known,” Hildering said. “The coastline of British Columbia is so vast that even when a dead whale does wash ashore, the body may not be detected at all or not soon enough before decay limits the possibility of determining cause of death.”

However, researchers believe that the presence of humans likely significantly contributes to these deaths.

“Results from our preliminary research, conducted in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, suggests that about half the humpback whales off the coast of British Columbia have scarring from entanglement,” Hildering said. “Similarly, there are humpbacks with scarring from boat propellers.

“They are [just] the survivors—we do not know how many have died and sunk to the bottom of the ocean.”