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Dead whale (pieces) hauled away from San Onofre State Beach

Removing whale carcass

The process of removing a whale carcass from the shoreline along San Onofre State Beach begins Thursday morning. The whale died at sea before washing up April 24 near Lower Trestles, a popular surfing destination near the Orange County-San Diego County border.

(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Apparently the warnings worked.

When crews fired up a hydraulic excavator and sank its heavy, fanged bucket into the carcass of a gray whale on San Onofre State Beach Thursday morning, few people came to witness the spectacle. 

Just one day earlier, a state parks official warned the curious  to stay away, as the whale’s removal was likely to be “very messy” and disturbing -- especially to young children.

“Funky weather and last night’s rain must have persuaded people against coming today,” said Ed Schlegel, a 44-year Capistrano Beach resident who had made a three-mile hike to the famed Lower Trestles surf spot to witness the scene.

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“I wouldn’t have missed it,” Schlegel said. 

All week long, spectators from around the state, even foreign tourists, had swarmed the beach to glimpse the 40-foot cetacean, describing it in social media as a “splendor on the shore” and wondering if humans could better protect the species. On Thursday however, crews erected a barricade some 1,000 feet from the speckled, rotting body before they began tearing it into chunks and loading them into dump trucks.

Officials at the scene said they wanted to keep the public at a distance because methane could build up inside the rotting whale’s abdomen and cause it to explode, creating a biohazard.  

Schlegel and friend Steve Netherby were allowed to bypass the cordon and get a closer peek however, as they are members of the San Onofre Parks Foundation

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“Why aren’t they using chainsaws? Wouldn’t that make this go faster?” asked Netherby, a senior advisor to the foundation’s board.

The men, who came equipped with cameras and a pair of binoculars, had heard that marine biologists used knives to cut samples from the whale’s hide for study in the lab.  

“And to witness this scene, these are things to tell the grandchildren,” Netherby mused. "It never gets old.”

The whale carcass has been rotting on the beach since Sunday, so Schlegel and Netherby said they were thankful a steady Northwest wind was keeping the horrific stench from their nostrils. They wondered how the workers could handle it.

The answer to that question came from truck driver Ron Schultz, who said he relied on liberal amounts of Vick’s Vapor Rub to ward off the odor.

Schultz confessed to a “woozy” feeling in his stomach when he learned what his job would be Thursday -- hauling chopped pieces of whale to a landfill somewhere in San Diego.  

“Who’s used to watching things being shredded,” Schultz asked. “You wouldn’t be a human being if you didn’t react.”

Schultz, who works for Perrault Corp. of Bonsall, drove one of three dump trucks that were lined up and waiting to be filled. In the distance the excavator and other heavy equipment looked like Tonka toys toiling away on the beach.

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“It’s kind of a trip, but really, I think it’s sad,” Schultz said. “There’s no joy in watching this happen.”

Officials expect the removal work to take one-to-three days. Among the challenges are the sheer weight -- the tail alone weighs 5,000 pounds -- and the steady softening of the carcass as it ages. (By lunchtime Thursday, the work had caused the excavator to blow a hydraulic line.)

Among those folks who ventured onto the scene were joggers Carla McAlister and Azin Baird, both of San Clemente.

“How did whales end up here?” Baird asked as a bulldoze dragged away a chunk of whale.  "What’s affecting them? We’ve gotta help them.”

Since the whale washed up at Trestles, a second dead whale has been spotted bobbing offshore attracting great white sharks. Residents and officials are hoping that it too doesn’t become beached.   

As the morning sun rose steadily higher Thursday, Netherby and Schlegel remembered that they had yet to eat breakfast. They took one last look at the blubbery spectacle on the beach and then began the long trek back to their cars. From there, they planned to drive to one of their favorite diners in San Clemente. 

“Eggs Benedict sounds good, don’t you think” Netherby asked. “It’s not every day you have an event like this. This is important for scientific reasons, for educational reasons. How magnificent is that animal out there. And how exciting that we have other whales swimming by in our backyard.”

anh.do@latimes.com

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Twitter: @newsterrier

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