A massive (and pregnant) dead fin whale that washed up off the coast of San Diego last week is now a giant opportunity for marine scientists.
The 65-foot leviathan (second in size only to the great blue whale) was originally destined for the landfill (an epic challenge unto itself), but will now serve as an underwater laboratory. Richard Branson and his Virgin Oceanic group donated a ship and the required fuel to tow the carcass to Fiesta Island where it was studied. The whale was later sunk using over four tons of steel.
Scientists at the Scripps Submarine Canyon plan to study the decomposing carcass over the next several years and learn about how it changes the ecosystem where it lands.
"There are all these organisms that only live on whale carcasses that turn up,'' executive director of the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, Nigella Hillgarth, told Fox 5. "Hopefully we'll get really exciting information from that.''
Virgin Oceanic, Branson's division dedicated to deep sea underwater exploration, has plans to send down robotic cameras to capture video of creatures eating the whale and to offer submersible rides to the public. According to Virgin Oceanic's operations manager Eddie Kisfaludy, the move by Branson to help fund the operation is part of a larger goal "to get the world excited about exploring" the ocean depths.
Kisfaludy told the San Diego Union-Tribune: "The first thing that is going to happen after we sink the whale is it’s probably going to get attacked by all the deep sea critters that hang out around at 2,500 feet down. That’s going to include hack fish, shrimp [and] crab, and they are probably going to be working away on it for the next several years."
For a glimpse of this "feast in the deep," check out this short video by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) who earlier sank five dead whales in Monterey Canyon, California.