SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. – For those who could stand the smell, and stifle their gags, it was something to behold — the sad but riveting sight of a 40-foot whale lying dead on its side on a Southern California beach known for its surfing.
Dozens of gawkers stood upwind of the carcass on Tuesday, examining it, marveling at it, and of course taking selfies with it.
"You should be paying homage to such creatures that are so intelligent and so wonderful," said Cynthia Stern of Santa Monica, who drove 75 miles to place an orchid by the whale and press homeopathic remedies onto its rotting blubber. "You could start to feel the positive energy as you walked down the beach. Even though it's a carcass, it's profoundly positive — and anyone who went there is blessed."
Its enormous tongue was so swollen that it bulged out of its mouth like a giant black balloon. Seaweed still dangled from its mouth, and only a few patches of grey-black skin were left on the body, which was a light beige color from the fat underneath.
A big problem looms with the big beast, however. Officials must decide whether to tow the load of up to 30 tons out to sea or cut it into pieces and load them on trucks, and neither option is easy.
"I don't think the carcass could have landed on a worse stretch of beach," said Rich Haydon, the superintendent who oversees the beach, citing its limited access for vehicles and the popularity of the beach known as Lower Trestles south of San Clemente.
Removal will be a difficult, messy process whether the carcass is towed to sea or cut up and hauled off.
Burial on the beach isn't feasible because the stretch is mostly cobblestones, Haydon said.
The whale likely died of natural causes and was discovered Sunday on the beach.
Heraclio Belmontes of Newport Beach went to see the whale with his two brothers.
"It's at least twice my height," he said. "I was a chef . for a while, so I've seen all sorts of dead fish. But never like this."
Monica Perez brought her three children, ages 7 to 11, to see the unusual sight. They made observations about the texture of the whale's skin and talked about decomposition with their mother as they circled the carcass.
They counted nine footsteps as they measured the whale's tail from end to end where it lay on the sand.
"It's very scientific. It's not every day that you have a whale that washes up onto your beach, and there's a lot that we can learn from these majestic creatures," Perez said. "We did miss the end of school, but I figure that this is school in action."