The Rottumerplaat whale

Wageningen Marine Research has been monitoring the decomposition of the corpse and its effect on the surrounding nature.

You’ve got to find something to do during a lockdown like this. For a while now, I’ve been following the monthly updates about the whale corpse at Rottumerplaat. It’s surprisingly interesting and, I must admit, even slightly addictive.

Rottumerplaat appeals to the imagination – for me at least. This little Wadden island may well be the most inaccessible part of the Netherlands – uninhabited and not open to the public. At the end of November, a fisher spotted a beached northern minke whale there. Whale corpses are usually destroyed, but this one was left alone, and Wageningen Marine Research has been monitoring the decomposition of the corpse and its effect on the surrounding nature. The researchers are using wildlife cameras to see which scavengers descend upon the corpse, and once a month they sail to the island to take measurements. Then they report their findings on the internet a few days later (search term, Dutch only: ‘Pilot Walviskadaver’).

You can see from the reports that it took some time before scavengers began to take an interest in the whale. Most of the first photos from the wildlife cameras only show passing rabbits, but from mid-December magpies, crows, two kinds of gull and a buzzard appear on the scene. When the researchers visited in January, they reported a ‘nauseating smell’, but that had diminished in February. By that time flies had appeared on the corpse, which was quite discoloured and had shrunk, although it was still largely intact. So it will be some time before the whole decomposition process is complete.

In scientific communication and outreach, there’s a lot of talk about how to sell your story. But the monthly updates about this whale corpse are appealing precisely for the absence of frills.

It took some time before scavengers began to take an interest in the whale

It’s just a list of dry observations and a set of photos of a dune with a dead whale on it: Rottumerplaat in the mist, Rottumerplaat in the snow, Rottumerplaat at low tide, Rottumerplaat at high tide, Rottumerplaat by night, Rottumerplaat by day, and oh look – here comes a magpie. It is so nice to catch up just once a month on the state of play on that windy, deserted island. Particularly at a time when the coronavirus restrictions are keeping us at home most of the time. The March report is still to come. I’m already looking forward to it.   

Vincent Oostvogels (25) is in the first year of his PhD research project on biodiversity restoration in the dairy farming sector. He dreams of having a few cows of his own one day.

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