A Gray ‘Whale of a Problem’: Re-Mediating Dead Wildlife at Trestles

Keywords: whales, landfills, necropolitics, anthropogenic climate change, Trestles

In January 2021, the World Cetacean Alliance named Dana Point in Orange County, California, the first Whale Heritage Site in the United States for meeting criteria that support cetaceans’ cultural, economic, educational, and ecological importance. Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) as “sentinels of ecosystem change” are dialed into Orange County’s ecology and co-exist with humans. Sustainable wildlife viewing within the context of tourism means humans are encouraged to watch whales in their “natural” habitat and manage the ocean for future generations. A bleaker image shows unmanageable whale die-offs. During El Niño 2016, seven miles south of Dana Point, the carcass of a gray whale rolled ashore at Trestles, a popular surf spot in San Onofre State Beach. Two questions persist. Is a landfill an ecologically sustainable space to dump dead whales when they disrupt daily flows of beach tourism? And what role might indigenous ecological knowledge play in future dead wildlife re-mediation efforts in coastal communities that value whales economically and culturally? This paper argues that dumping a dead whale into a landfill happens because there are no transparent environmental policies in place that clearly communicate best practices for cities to reduce landfill-bound marine sentinel waste. Eco-ethnography as method is used to locate incoherent logics within sustainability discourse. The analysis reveals an anthropocentric erasure of marine sentinels’ existence and, in effect, indigenous connections to the Acjachemen. The case study underscores an unsettling vision of Trestles’ ecological future and ecosystem functionality, particularly given its proximity to the first U.S. Whale Heritage Site.