Chainsaw gang slice through 30 tonnes of rotting flesh

When John Lambert turned up at work this week, he wasn't expecting to climb inside 30 tonnes of rotting flesh and blubber.

As a senior field officer with Sydney Harbour National Park, Mr Lambert's routine is usually a little less grisly.

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Whale of a dirty job

RAW VISION: Workers try to deal with the carcass of a 30-tonne humpback whale that floated off Newport ocean pool in Sydney and back on to the beach this morning.

"We remove dangerous trees, we build walking tracks and retaining walls, we clean toilets, we do historic buildings maintenance - we are basically a jack of all trades," he said.

Today was different. Early this morning, Mr Lambert and a dozen of his colleagues donned protective suits and Kevlar leg armour, smeared Vicks VapoRub under their noses, and began the gruesome task of sawing apart a 11.6-metre dead whale.

The chainsaw gang goes to work.
The chainsaw gang goes to work. Photo: Nick Moir

The humpback, which had died at sea about four days ago, washed up in the ocean swimming pool at Newport Beach just before dawn on Tuesday. Last night's high tide heaved it out of the pool and deposited it on the beach itself, where it lay at sunrise, bloated and gaseous.

The dangerous surf and the risk of attracting hordes of sharks to Sydney meant that towing the carcass out for a sea burial was impossible. It had to be cut up.


The field officers - separate from park rangers in that they rarely deal directly with the public - sharpened their chainsaws, attached special sickle-like knives to tree-pruning poles, and moved in.

"It is really gruesome, as you can imagine," Mr Lambert said today, after washing off the human sweat and whale blood with a hot shower.

It's a grisly job ... but someone's got to do it.
It's a grisly job ... but someone's got to do it. Photo: Nick Moir

"But once you are working you can blank out the smell and focus on what you're doing; it's surprising how quickly you can just get on with the job."

They started with knives, slashing through about nine centimetres of blubber around the head and the tail, then deployed the chainsaws. It was physically hard labour, the crews said, with pairs of chainsaw operators alternating regularly.

Big job ... an excavator is used to move the whale.
Big job ... an excavator is used to move the whale. Photo: Nick Moir

Bulldozers operated by Pittwater Council staff helped by pulling on one end of the carcass, allowing the cutting crews to step into the breaches. Flesh and sinews regularly clogged the chainsaws' sprockets, and other staff continually cleaned and resharpened the soiled equipment. The main job took four hours.

"It saddens me to see such a wonderful animal in this condition," Mr Lambert said. "It's such a huge animal when you are standing next to it. But once you're into the job, you just soldier on."

By 1pm, the carcass had been divided into several large, ragged chunks. Council-owned trucks, normally used to cart around bulk soil for landscaping, had already taken some of the flesh and entrails south to a public landfill site at Lucas Heights.

The pieces are so large that they take years to fully decompose, said Geoff Ross, the co-ordinator of marine and fauna programs at the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

"We dug one up as part of a project with the Australian museum and, after 10 years, there was still flesh on the bones," Mr Ross said.