Skip to content
All articles
  • All articles
  • About whales & dolphins
  • Create healthy seas
  • End captivity
  • Fundraising
  • Green Whale
  • Kids blogs
  • Prevent deaths in nets
  • Scottish Dolphin Centre
  • Stop whaling
We need whale poo 📷 WDC NA

Whales are our climate allies – meet the scientists busy proving it

At Whale and Dolphin Conservation, we're working hard to bring whales and the ocean into...
Humpback whale underwater

Climate giants – how whales can help save the world

We know that whales, dolphins and porpoises are amazing beings with complex social and family...
Black Sea common dolphins © Elena Gladilina

The dolphin and porpoise casualties of the war in Ukraine

Rare, threatened subspecies of dolphins and porpoises live in the Black Sea along Ukraine's coast....
WDC's Ed Fox, Chris Butler-Stroud and Carla Boreham take a message from the ocean to parliament

Taking a message from the ocean to parliament

It's a sad fact that whales and dolphins don't vote in human elections, but I...
Minke whale © Ursula Tscherter - ORES

The whale trappers are back with their cruel experiment

Anyone walking past my window might have heard my groan of disbelief at the news...
Boto © Fernando Trujillo

Meet the legendary pink river dolphins

Botos don't look or live like other dolphins. Flamingo-pink all over with super-skinny snouts and...
Tokitae in captivity

Talking to TUI – will they stop supporting whale and dolphin captivity?

Last Thursday I travelled to Berlin for a long-anticipated meeting with TUI senior executives. I...

Earth Day Q&A with Waipapa Bay Wines’ marketing director, Fran Draper

We've been partnered with Waipapa Bay Wines since 2019 so for this year's Earth Day,...

Why are beached whales taken to landfill?

The sight of any beached whale or dolphin can be really distressing for onlookers, even for scientists like me who visit strandings on a regular basis. After watching the ‘whale fall’ experiment on Britain’s Whales on ITV, many of supporters were asking why stranded whales are often taken to landfill rather than being placed to rest in their natural environment, the ocean, so other marine animals can benefit.

What’s important to remember here is that the whales and dolphins we see stranded on our beaches, and hear of on other beaches, only represent a very tiny proportion of the total number that die in any given year. In other words, the vast majority of whales and dolphins that die do so at sea and they are returned to the great marine eco-system to benefit other marine animals.  

So why don’t we return all stranded whales and dolphins back to the sea?

The main reason dead whales and dolphins are not returned to the sea is because of the logistics of getting the animal back into deep water (and keeping it there). We know that the ‘whale fall’ experiment on ITV’s recent documentary took huge amounts of planning; returning a dead whale to the ocean is complex and also costly. Permissions were needed from those who ‘own’ the seabed, as well as from shipping authorities – this is because a whale will float for some time before the natural bodily gasses are expelled, and only then will it sink to the seabed. This floating mass can be a shipping hazard and has the potential to strand again. This means the whale has to be weighted down and monitored continuously.

When a whale or dolphin strands, experienced marine scientists ideally undertake a ‘necropsy’ (an autopsy for animals), which allows us to get a better idea why the animal might have died. This helps us to better understand the state of the ocean and the creatures living within it. Once this has been completed, the whale or dolphin is then seen as a health hazard as the cause of death could be disease for example. In these cases the animal will need to be removed and disposed of safely.

Many whales and dolphins strand because of excessive levels of pollutants in their system, like PCBs for example, which are dangerous chemicals that damage the ocean and could cause harm to public health. Some whales, like belugas, are actually treated in the same way as toxic waste when they stand, and to return a heavily polluted animal would be considered irresponsible. Of course this raises questions about pollutants contaminating land, which is why incineration is often the best way to dispose of stranded whales.

In an ideal world, animals that don’t undergo a necropsy would be returned to the sea to become part of the marine food chain, but sadly the logistics, including costs, permissions and time, currently make it prohibitive. It’s not an impossible task, but disposal by incineration or burying is deemed the preferred and simplest option.

As noted, let’s not forget that when it comes to stranded whales and dolphins, we’re only talking about a very small percentage of the total number of animals that die each year. Importantly, with each one that does die on our shores, we learn a huge amount that can only enable us to protect and conserve them better.

About Nicola Hodgins

Policy Manager at WDC