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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Whale of a Story

Air Date: Week of

It was very like a whale, a 60-ton dead finback whale to be exact, and it washed ashore on a beach in the poorest county in Maine. Residents recount, in this audio postcard from producer Molly Menschel, how they had to very quickly decide what to do with it.


GELLERMAN: What would you do if a 60-ton dead animal showed up in your community. Okay, granted, it's not likely to happen to you but that's just what happened to the people of Lubec county, Maine. They had to figure out, and quickly, what to do when one day, a giant finback whale washed up on their shores. Producer Molly Menschel sent us this audio postcard she calls "Just Another Fish Story," about how the good citizens of Lubec handled their "whale" of a problem.

MAN1: The story about the whale, the story about the whale see. I understand it's a fish story and notwithstanding, it's a big fish. But what happened, years ago in Lubec, Maine, there was a whale that got tangled up in fishermen's lines way off, somewhere off a quarter head. The whale could see them, see. And, it drifted in to shore. It just couldn't swim. The tide carried it in and it landed on the beach over here in Lubec, not too far from here, see. I saw it. I was down there.

WOMAN: Ah, it was big. I couldn't tell you how long it or…

MAN: The whale was roughly 55 to…

MAN: 56 and a half feet long…

MAN: A 70-foot animal. That's almost the size of an 18-wheel truck.

MAN: To me it was huge.

WOMAN: It was huge.

MAN: It was huge.

MAN: Laying down it would be as high as this ceiling.

WOMAN: It was the largest animal I ever saw.

MAN: No wonder, in the Holy Bible it says, ‘"Jonah went into the belly of the whale." Well, there's plenty of room there. That mouth is a big one.

MAN: It was laying there right on top of the beach.

MAN: And it was laying on its side.

WOMAN: I remember it was blackish-grayish color.

WOMAN: He wasn't gray anymore. He wasn't grayish-blackish.

MAN: It was mostly black and white.

WOMAN: It was white, or whitish-grayish.

MAN: There was a lot of wounds on it, old scars.

MAN: What it looked like was a vicious animal to me.

MAN: It was a monster.

WOMAN: But, I wasn't frightened because it was dead.

MAN: Mouth happened to be open. Its mouth happened to be open. It was a dead fish, but its mouth happened to be open.

MAN: It might have been middle of August or so.

MAN: Yeah, August, September. I can't…

MAN: Evidently, it washed up in the night and someone spotted it after daylight, laying there on the beach.

MAN: It was early in the morning. The word had started to spread that this whale had washed ashore and people started coming in.

MAN: I went down by myself but there were plenty of people around.

MAN: On the first day when it washed up, I went down.

WOMAN: Yeah, we took the kids down to see it.

MAN: Little kids were running up to it and touching it.

WOMAN: Climbing up on top of the whale, standing on it and getting their pictures taken.

MAN: Sell hotdogs or something. Make a little money. [LAUGHS].

WOMAN: I think people in a small town handle death in a different way.
They have to deal with it a lot more often. Everybody knows everybody so when someone dies, the whole town grieves. I actually went down there, it was coming on to sunset and I sat on the beach and smoked a cigarette and bawled my eyes out. Yeah, that's what I done. And I never went back down. And we lived probably a thousand feet from the beach.

MAN: The mystery of the whole thing is how it got there. Nobody knows if it died off in the bay and floated ashore or whether it grounded itself out and died on the beach or whether it just got confused. Nobody knows.

MAN: It washed up on the beach.

WOMAN: He got snarled up, could have been…

MAN: I guess that's what happened to him, he drowned…

WOMAN: He couldn't get clear.

MAN: You know, this is where it wanted to be…

MAN: They called the Coast Guard to see if they could tow it back off shore and let it go to some other town, but they wouldn't do it.

WOMAN: Because it had already been a couple of other places and that's what they'd done, they towed it out and Lubec finally wound up with it…

WOMAN: There was no boats big enough.

MAN: And depending upon the way the wind was blowing when the current is running, some things are almost impossible to get rid of.

MAN: This thing laid on the beach for days while the town was trying to determine how they were going to get rid out of it.

MAN: And it sat there because the government didn't know what to do. They were arguing, one branch of government and arguing with another branch of government over what to do.

MAN: Vicious circle.

MAN: It was too big to move. You couldn't move it. You couldn't do anything.

WOMAN: We're a very poor town. We're the poorest county in the state of Maine. And that we'd be the one's having to foot the bill…

MAN: Small town Lubec, it was big doings.

MAN: Well, the people in the town and the town office and the whole nine yards were all disturbed because like any dead body, it began to smell, you know. Stink the town. A lot of people were saying "we've got to move out of here on account of the odor from this whale see."

WOMAN: You could smell it. Low tide smells around here anyways, but this reeked of death.

MAN: Rotten meat sitting in the sun for a month. You just take the cover off the can, stick your head in there and that's just about what it smelled like.

WOMAN: It was an oily, greasy smell.

MAN: It was right in your nose.

WOMAN: Oh, it smelled like rotten meat.

MAN: Rotten fish and oil.

WOMAN: The older, they couldn't stand it, you know when the wind was blowing in that direction right on the town.

MAN: You could smell it for miles.

MAN: As far away as Freeport, Maine, they could smell it.

WOMAN: Oh, I touched it. Probably felt the same as what it did almost when it was alive. Cold; they're cold-blooded.

MAN: It did have a funny feeling. The texture of the animal was…

MAN: Like a great big smooth piece of rubber.

MAN: I touched it with one finger and I had to use lest oil to get the smell off.

WOMAN: The stench really had to get off your hand.

MAN: I put hand cleaner on my hands. I put straight gasoline.

WOMAN: Bleaching it off your hands, and that's what I wound up doing.

MAN: And finally they decided something had to be done about it.

MAN: It came to the point that no matter what it cost, it had to go.

MAN: They knew something had to be done and they did something.

MAN: One thing lead to another so they called Ramsel. A man named Ramsel.

RAMSEL: I was notified by the town of Lubec. They contacted me to come down and dig a hole with an excavator. It was kind of a hazy, overcast day and the sun didn't shine. I think there was like a crowd of 15 or 20 people, actually showed up.

MAN: There were a lot of people, maybe a hundred. A hundred or so people.

WOMAN: Word spread fast. Everybody in town was there. I just wondered where are they all going, you know. So I went, too.

RAMSEL: So, we dug a hole as close as we could and before I got the hole dug, he accidentally slid on his own and went into the hole. Sort of graceful. I mean it was so big it just took it's time just sort of, I mean the side caved in a little.

MAN: He rolled in, he slipped in and rolled belly up.

RAMSEL: When they finally rolled it into the hole, everybody sort of quieted down. They were kind of respectful. They were kind of sad to see it go.

WOMAN: Oh, I don't know how to explain it. Something that you never think of dying. You always hear stories that a whale is a passed on fisherman's soul.

MAN: Made me think how small I was. Yeah. There's a lot of people who think, oh, I'm so big. I'm so great. No matter how powerful they are something will happen in life that will cause people to say, ‘how small am I anyway.'

MAN: We're both mammals that have reached the pinnacle of our place and they just seem to be close to us. I feel close to whales.

RAMSEL: And we buried it, six feet over the top.

WOMAN: We dug up gravel and stuff and covered it all over.

MAN: I've dug graves for humans, they're in (inaudible) also. It just seemed different to bury something with no box. Just putting raw earth right back onto its body.

WOMAN: You picture them as being immortal, like a free soul, free will out there. You just don't see them dying. It was sad; it was very sad.

RAMSEL: And, it took about two and a half hours, three hours, to dig the hole and then to fill it back in. And, by noontime it was all finished. I think I got like 300 dollars as burial digger. I did the town a favor actually. Maybe the whale, too, how do we know?

RAMSEL: It was just a day's work for me. To bury a whale, I mean, it was an oddity to bury a whale, but…

WOMAN: It's just something weird that it happened and something unforetold...

MAN: If you never did see it, you couldn't understand it, you know what I mean?

MAN: I know it's still there.

MAN: He's still laying there. That's about all I can tell you about the whale.

WOMAN: I haven't been down there since. Maybe we all go down and take a stroll over.

MAN: That's the way things went. And this is just another fish story.

[MUSIC: Jennifer and Hazel Wrigley "Running the Lee" Mither o' the Sea (Greentrax) 1999]

GELLERMAN: Our audio postcard, "Just Another Fish Story," was produced by Molly Menschel, a recent graduate of the Salt Institute, a radio documentary program in Portland, Maine.



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