A Dead Whale of a Tale and Counting to a Billion

Summary: Rotting whale smells far worse than you think and why playing math games with your young child is a real eye opener.

dead whale at bean hollow

If you took a jar of cat urine and then put a dead rat in it, plus a big scoop of fresh dog shit, then sealed the jar and left it the sun for a week, you’d get close to approximating the smell from a bloated, rotting, eighty-foot blue whale on the beach. But just close. The actual smell is beyond description.

On October 6th, 2010, I read an article in our paper about a big blue whale that had died and washed ashore at Bean Hollow, a state park about 35 minutes north of Santa Cruz.

“We should go see the dead whale after school today. The tide will be low at 4pm so it will be perfect. This is a very rare event so this may be the only chance in your life to see this.”

“Yeah, let’s go see the dead whale!”

On the drive up my daughter asks to play a game.

“Give me numbers to add up.”

“Uh, ok….Hmmmm…whats seven plus two?”

After a short pause and some finger counting in silence she says “Nine”.

“Correct. Ok what’s twelve plus five?”


“Yep. How about twenty-two plus seven?”


“Ok, how about five thousand plus two thousand?”


“What is five thousand plus two thousand?”

“Uh, twenty-five?”

“Don’t get thrown off with the thousand part. Concentrate on the other numbers. What is FIVE thousand plus TWO thousand?

“Uh, nine?”

“Ok, you’re just guessing now. Don’t worry about the thousand part. We’re adding thousands here so what matters is how many thousands we’re adding.”

“A thousand what?”

A thousand anything. It doesn’t matter. Could be marbles, could be sticks of gum, could be cookies. So what is FIVE thousand plus TWO thousand?

“Uh, twenty-five cookies?”

“Uh, forget about the cookies. Ok ,what is two plus two?”


“Correct. Now what is TWO thousand plus TWO thousand?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s FOUR thousand. Do you see? The thousand doesn’t matter, what matters is how many thousands.”

Just then her eyes light up.

“Ok, I’m ready. Do another one!”

“What is ELEVEN thousand plus THREE thousand?”

Short pause while she counts silently to herself.


“GREAT! Ok, so what five MILLION plus three MILLION?

“Hmmm, eight million! Now do a billion!”

‘Ok, what’s fourteen billion plus seven billion?”

More finger counting.

“Twenty-one billion!”

“Great. Now we’re going to try another one. What’s one thousand and one, plus one thousand and one?”

“Uhhh,  four?”

The traffic was light and as we approach the beach we see cars lining up along both sides of highway one. This must be it. I snag the last spot in the main parking lot and we head over to the people lining the cliff.

As I get closer I see volunteers going up and down the cliff in overalls and yellow rain gear. Some are carrying buckets and shovels. But still no whale. The cliff is filled with people and they are all looking down at something.

Dead Whale Baleen

Oooh, look at the baleen!

As we round the bend, the size of the whale and its smell hit us simultaneously. The whale is huge, about eighty feet according to the researchers, and the fetus it was carrying and apparently discharged from the gas and bloating, was off to the side. The odor is thick and acidic – so thick it seems to stick to your nostrils, your hair and your cloths like a light marine mist.

We’re at the tail end which is the boring part. I want to see the head. Plus, with the light onshore breeze I reckon it will smell better to be up wind from the carcass.

Boy, was I ever wrong. The stench at the head is way beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. Diarrhea, vomit, dog shit, skunk – you name it and it paled in comparison.

All over the sand are thousands of light gray and white paper thin strips of rotting flesh. It looks like someone dumped a hundred gallons of egg flower soup on the beach.

Around the body is what appears to be a several rings of long  plastic sandbags. The kind they use for flood control on highways or store fronts. I walk over, around, and on top of the sand bags to get closer shots of the eye and baleen.

“I wonder why they put sandbags around here” I think to myself. I bend down to get a closer look.

“These aren’t sandbags, these are intestines!”

I’m not kidding, they look exactly like plastic filled with sand. They are bright white, smooth and with just a few wrinkles where they bend. Exactly like a plastic sandbag.

Shortly after this discovery the stench starts to overcome me and I come frighteningly close to throwing up.

“We need to go now.”

dead whale head

See I told you the intestines look like sandbags. And the sinking skull makes for a killer hot tub!

Every step, ever jostle, and ever breath of air nearly sends my lunch hurling.

It was the closest I’ve come to barfing in over ten years.

We get to the car and even though we are out of the stench flow, I’m still experiencing it over and over because the smell had saturated my clogged sinuses, my hair, my clothes and shoes – the shoes being the worst because they were actually standing on the rotting pieces of whale.

I grind my shoes into the ice plant. No difference. I rub them in dirt. No difference. I get out a bottle of grime remover, the kind that takes bugs off your windshield and grill – still no luck.

Unbelievable. Nothing affects the smell.

Not wanting to infect the car, I take them off, tip them on their side and drive home barefoot.

On the way back home we stop by Betty Burgers to eat dinner. I walk in, barefooted, holding my shoes, and go straight to the bathroom.

I scrub them down with soap and hot water, dry them, and take a whiff.

I nearly throw up again.

Realizing I will never be able to extract the smell from the rubber soles I throw them in the trash outside and order our food.

Fortunately I was planning to order some new shoes anyway. Which I did, as soon as I got home.

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