If a whale washes up on a beach in New York, there is pretty much one guy to call. “Twenty-five years ago, every time a whale stranding occurred, it was like the first time it happened,” says Robert DiGiovanni, a construction-worker-turned-marine-biologist who founded what amounts to a comprehensive whale command system, the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society (AMSEAS), in 2016. “It would take multiple days to do a basic response.” Now it doesn’t.
In addition to their work with other marine wildlife, DiGiovanni and his team at AMSEAS conduct whale necropsies and, crucially, coordinate the removal of their carcasses from wherever they wash up. The process — which straddles the line of vital scientific research and a logistical public service — is mostly funded through donations and volunteering. DiGiovanni estimates that running this kind of operation saves towns and municipalities some hundreds of thousands of dollars in resources each year.
And then after all is said and done, there’s the question of what to do with the whale itself. The answer, I recently learned: bury it on the beach. Burials are one of the most common whale-disposal methods, although the carcass can also be carted off to a landfill or compost facility. (Or nature’s original option — left in place to rot.) This means that on your day off at the Rockaways, you might be walking near a whale grave without even knowing it. But DiGiovanni would, since he was likely part of the team that put it there.
I talked to DiGiovanni about being a dead-whale fixer, how he got into the whale-response business, and, of course, where the whale bodies are buried.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
So how did you become the go-to whale guy in New York?
It was a very circuitous route. I had a whole different career — I was in construction. But then I went on a whale watch with Okeanos ocean-research foundation back in the 1990s, saw a whale, and talked to a naturalist there. I found out how much we didn’t really know about these animals. I thought it was neat, so I decided to close my construction business and went back to school.
Do you guys respond to every whale that washes up on New York beaches?
Yes — 84 strandings in the last six years.
Okay, so run through what happens once a whale washes up.
Within the hour of getting the call we’ll have a basic plan of how we’re going to respond. If the animal is still floating offshore, we’ll need a team to go tow the animal in. We need heavy equipment to help us — excavators and bulldozers and things like that — and need to know what resources local municipalities have available and when they can get them. We prefer to go out and do the necropsy with 12 to 15 people who have gone through our training — who help open up the animal, process the samples, documentation, take photos, and someone who manages the heavy equipment — but we’ve gone out with just four people to do this at times. In all of this planning, the final disposition is discussed with municipalities. Usually it takes 12 to 20 hours.
Wow, that’s fast.
It varies. Sometimes it’s a multi-day thing. One extreme was when we received a call about an animal that was just offshore at Smith Point. It’s a bathing beach and there were a lot of people there and they didn’t want the animal overnight. They were like, “Well if we can get equipment there tonight, can you do necropsy with lights?” It’s not what we prefer to do, but we got there at dinnertime, finished by 10 p.m., and they buried it probably an hour after us.
It’s not something I would ever want to do, but do people ever mess with the whale before you can get there?
Sometimes people do some unusual things. They think it’s neat and take samples even though it’s against the law. But the biggest thing that concerns me is if the animal is in the surf rolling around and people get close.
Like it could roll over them?
Yes, it’s problematic.
Oh no. But in those cases, why don’t you just push the whales back into the ocean rather than haul them out?
When you push an animal off you don’t know where it’s going to end up, it could become a hazard or end up on another beach. All you’re doing is making it someone else’s problem. And then you don’t get information about what’s going on.
So then how do you decide how it’ll be disposed of?
After you do the necropsy, you can leave it there for it to decompose as part of the ecosystem, which is what happened for many, many years as part of the natural cycle. Sometimes we can’t even get access to it, so they’re just left in situ. The other two options are to bury the animal on the beach or cart it off to another location where it can be disposed of — a landfill, a composting facility, or another remote location where it might be able to be buried. Sometimes there’s not enough beach to bury an animal so it might need to be carted off.
How much beach are we talking about?
We dig down as deep as we can based on conditions we have — six to eight feet deep are the general guidelines.
And you guys aren’t doing the actual burying.
We don’t use the equipment because it’s not our equipment — usually it’s the town’s.
What if it washes up on a private beach?
Those take longer. The key thing is it’s the private landowner who’s responsible for making sure this is done following guidelines too — most people don’t realize that. You can’t just do whatever you want to this animal, they’re required to coordinate with us to make sure we can collect some data. People have been very helpful. We did a response in New Jersey and the landowner had equipment to bury it, so he buried it.
So people basically know to call you now.
Yeah — nobody was talking about this 25 years ago. We’d show up and they’d be like, “Hey, there’s your whale, can you get it off my beach?” But I’d have to say: “Well, actually it’s not my beach, not my whale, this is our whale, it’s your beach.” We’ve gotten parking tickets when towns called us out to work on a dead whale and I went to the town clerk’s office and said, “Hey, listen, I don’t want to really make a big deal, but this is what we just did for the town and we got a ticket.” The woman working there was like, “That was just rude, we’ll take care of that.”
You need a special whale badge to put in your car.
There you go!
What are some of the best towns for whale response? Do you have a mental ranking?
East Hampton has it dialed in really well, we’ve worked on some major events together. Hempstead too.
Do you have an estimate of how many whales actually end up buried on New York beaches? Because not every beached whale will get buried, right?
I don’t have the number off the top of my head because each one is a little different — for example, in most cases in the East Hamptons they cart the animals off. It’s probably in the dozens, but that’s over the course of decades.
So where are the most whales buried — the Rockaways?
In the Rockaways we have buried them because it’s a bigger area. It’s been a handful over the last five years. When I say Rockaways I mean all the way from Breezy Point — it’s not a lot when you look at it. We’re going to different spots and different areas and in some cases even those buried on the beach are not buried on the beach itself. Maybe they’re moved inland to the dune area.
I do think it’s really crazy to think that there are just whales underneath us on the beach and most people don’t know.
It’s an interesting way to look at it. Historically animals have been washing up along shores for thousands of years and it’s really the burying part that is something new we do. The unfortunate part for us is when we do this and can usually do it in a couple days, people don’t even know and don’t even realize there’s a group that needs support.
Right, if you’re doing your job efficiently then people don’t even know a whale was there. Unless — can you tell where they are or smell them once they’re buried?
If we don’t have people talking about it, then obviously they can’t. [Pauses.] What do you think the public would think about whales being buried on the beach?
Personally I think it’s really cool — I think most people just don’t know about it. Although I did see back in 2017 a bunch of locals in Hempstead were up in arms about a whale being buried on the beach, saying it would smell and that it was a health hazard.
That was a really interesting event, we had people who were concerned. One woman I spoke to at length, she was like, “Well, I’m worried it’s going to smell.” I talked to her right on the beach for probably an hour after we were done and the whole team had left. At the end, she said: “Good luck, I hope you’re right, Rob.” I think it’s new to people so of course they’re going to have those concerns, but these methods are all approved methods that work. It’s all about building trust.
Do you ever feel emotional while burying a whale? I feel like I would.
Anytime you see an animal like that it’s a traumatic and sad thing. You prefer to see them swimming out in the wild doing their thing. We work with the Nations to come out and do a ceremony with these animals — that’s been a big part of protocol. We’ll stop all the work we’re doing, stop all the construction equipment, and everybody takes a part in it. I think that brings everything full circle.