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Exploding Whales: A Gateway Drug to Marine Biology

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There's a dead blue whale on the beach in Trout River, Newfoundland, and it stinks. Everyone's talking about how to get it out of there, but before it's gone, I just hope it has a chance to gross out a few impressionable kids. In my dream-world, parents across Newfoundland, and beyond, are dragging their kids out to see and smell this basketball court-length rotting corpse as it rolls in the waves on that beach. Because that kind of uncomfortable, vulgar experience is absolutely the best way to turn unsuspecting younglings into the next generation of scientists.

I've never smelled a dead blue whale, but I did smell a dead elephant once, and it was glorious. It was near Kruger National Park in South Africa, where I was on safari with my dad. There had been a fight between two elephants about ten days prior, and the corpse of the loser lay on its right side in a small clearing. It was the middle of the night. As our open-air land rover cut a path through the dark toward the corpse, the smell hit us like a wall. It was unreal. I could feel it in my eyes, and felt almost violated as the molecules from the elephant drifted into my nose and mouth. A sulfur-rich, pungent fog physically pressed itself against the back of my throat. I tried breathing through my mouth, and that helped a bit, but it was one of the grossest things I'd ever come across. I've smelled dead animals before, even walked through pools of wet bat poop in tropical caves, but this elephant smell was way beyond that. As the land rover continued on, my dad and I looked at each other, and we laughed.

We rounded the last turn and the vehicle came to a stop. Our guide's flashlight hit the giant dead body in the clearing as the engine turned off, and my jaw dropped in the silence of the night. There was a gaping hole where the elephant's anus should have been, almost like a small cave. A hyena was picking away at one of the elephant's legs, but was clearly having trouble pulling flesh away. As my dad and I watched, the hyena walked around to the back of the elephant, stuck its head into the hole where the anus once was, locked its jaws on some pink slab of whatever the hell, and then yanked its head back, like a dog playing tug-of-war with a rope. It was funny, it was gross, and it was unforgettable.

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A spotted hyena, soaked from having just crawled inside an elephant's corpse, does its part to keep nutrients cycling in its ecosystem.

As the hyena stepped aside to chew on rotten elephant colon, I looked closely at the open hole in the elephant's rear end. The floor of the hole was absolutely writhing with white maggots, and new maggots were steadily raining down from the ceiling. I could actually hear the trickling rain of maggots within the elephant -- there must have been tens of thousands of them. My dad and I were both wincing from the smell. This was the greatest family trip ever.

"Hey Dad, how much money would it take for you to lie down inside that elephant for one minute?"

"WHAT? No thank you!"

"Seriously. Would you do it for a million dollars?"

"No way."

"Come on. A MILLION dollars? That's a lot of money. It would be set up so you didn't have to worry about hyenas eating you or anything like that."

"That's disgusting."

"I think my price would be five thousand."

"Seriously, what is wrong with you?"

My dad loves nature, but he's a lawyer, not a biologist. So when he imagined a safari with his biologist son, he probably expected the grossest part to be something like a lion taking down a wildebeest. Non-biologists can usually stomach the reality of a predator killing its prey, but they tend to avoid topics like decomposition or parasites. To biologists, on the other hand, those gross things are some of the best parts of nature. It's as though non-biologists are muggles, unaware of the magic all around them.

When you look closely at gross things, you are often rewarded with amazing facts. For instance, I learned later that the position of the hole in that elephant was no accident. Apparently, when an elephant dies, it's not easy for the first animals on the scene to get started. The skin is so thick, that it's hard to rip it away to get at the organs. Hyenas often get around that problem by starting at the anus of the elephant, where it's a little easier to get things started. Here's a video to show you what I mean.

When something makes you want to puke, biologists know that's usually a hint that it's worth looking at more closely. My dad was uncomfortable, but he was getting to see the wonder of the disgusting natural world the way I most love seeing it. As for me, that night got me curious about decomposition, and I ended up diving way deeper into the world of rotting animals while I wrote my book, Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You. I learned, for example, that you can estimate how many days it will take a human corpse to decompose by dividing the number 1,285 by the temperature at which the body is rotting (in degrees Celsius). There's a whole science to rotting stuff, and I probably wouldn't have even thought about it if I hadn't smelled that elephant. It was a gross night, but the discomfort wedged my brain open a little further, making me curious about new topics.

That night also had an impact on my dad. We talk about it all the time, and although he loves to roll his eyes and talk about how gross it was, he smiles every time, too.

As humans, we're shaped by the experiences that get us outside our comfort zone. The rush of adrenaline that comes from a scare, a laugh, or pure repulsion causes our brains to record things more clearly than normal. That's part of why the memory of the elephant corpse has stayed with my dad and me so much longer than other memories from that trip.

I don't know how the smell of a the blue whale carcass rotting in Trout River, Newfoundland compares to the smell of a dead elephant, but I hope a whole bunch of kids are getting their fill right now. A rotting whale might be gross at first whiff, but kids that get turned on to science by that stench might enjoy lifetimes exploring beautiful things that most muggles will never even realize exist.

Dan Riskin is the host of Monsters Inside Me on Animal Planet, the co-host of Daily Planet on Discovery Canada, and the author of Mother Nature Is Trying to Kill You. He is on Twitter as @RiskinDan.