Survival time of a whale out of water

From: Phillip J. Clapham (
Date: Wed Oct 10 2001 - 20:55:47 EDT

The question of how long a whale can survive out of water has a variable
anwer because it depends on a few things. Smaller whales (like pilot
whales) can probably last longer than bigger whales just because they
aren't as heavy. The problem all whales have out of water is that their
bones just aren't deisnged to support their weight on land - since in the
water they don't have to give much support. Thus, cetacean bones are light
and porous. So on a beach a stranded whale will literally crush itself
undr its own weight.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the second big problem is overheating. The
body of a whale is for the most part designed to keep it warm in cold
water. When iut's out of water, all that blubber has no cooling mechanism
because it's not in water any more, and so the whale cooks. This is also
why whales decompose so rapidly - they literally cook themselves once
they're dead and there is no thermoregulation going on at all.
As for how long a whale can actually survive, it's a few hours for a large
whale, in some cases longer; depends on air temperature and how sick the
whale is to begin with. Single whales strand almost always because they're
close to death anyway from some other cause. Whales that are kept cool by
people with cold water can survive longer. In the case of pilot whales,
three animals who were released six months after a mass stranding on Cape
Cod in 1986 had been on a beach for several hours. One of them was on the
beach at least eight hours, but was tended for most of that time - people
kept it cool, and maybe even rolled it around a bit from time to time so
that its whole weight wasnt bearing down on one spot.
Hope this helps!
Phil Clapham

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