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The Heart-Racing Drama of Dissecting a Beached Whale

Dr. Joy Reidenberg has a unique job -she collects whale organs for research. That means that she has to be ready whenever a whale carcass is available, and she must move fast, because authorities do not want whale remains to stay on the beach for any length of time. In 1987, she was informed of a beached whale in New Jersey, but she only had an hour to get there before it would be hauled off.   

There are many factors to consider once Reidenberg receives permission to dissect. Enough daylight to examine the specimen is one. Whale dissection is not an ideal night-time activity, but it can be done in the dark, with guts and all. Low tide and a potential storm are two other factors. It’s quite difficult working on a beached whale in knee-deep water while it’s raining. Will the whale lie belly up or down? Will there be construction equipment to move the heavy parts? Will it explode when opened due to gas build-up? These are the questions she grapples with. She could face all of these obstacles, some, or none at all. In the case of the Atlantic City sperm whale, there was one obstacle she didn’t factor in.

A police officer stopped her for speeding. Flustered, she stepped out of the vehicle in her white medical coat and complied with his instructions. He checked the back seat. “His face just turned ashen white, it was really weird,” says Reidenberg. A few moments before, she had heard on the radio that a body chopped to smithereens was discovered in plastic bags. Her rental car was filled with scalpels, hand knives, gloves, wood saws, and an array of gardening tools—equipment one would need to commit such butchery. The plastic bags in the back seat certainly did not help. She explained her situation and he decided to escort her to the stranded whale. Partly, just in case he was wrong.

That particular episode was worth the trouble, as she retrieved the whale's larynx and refuted earlier research about whale speech. You'll find out a lot more about the ins and outs of Reidenberg's work and whale dissection as a whole at Atlas Obscura. The article contains pictures of dead whales, but they are not grisly.   

(Image courtesy of Dr. Joy Reidenberg)


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