General Question

ScottyMcGeester's avatar

How long can a dead body last in the ocean?

Asked by ScottyMcGeester (1897points) June 13th, 2013

Trying to gauge this for a short story I’m writing in which several bodies are found in the ocean by the shore. But since I’m going for realism, it occurred to me that they probably won’t even last for the timeframe of events, so I may need to change it. But nevertheless, I want to find out. Say the bodies were cast in early January, could remains still be found by early June? And when I say remains, I don’t mean like body pieces, but the actual full body. Obviously it would be decomposed beyond recognition and they’d need to do testing, but would the bodies even be fully/mostly intact for that long in the ocean? Also, I have the story set off the English coastline, because I assume the setting could also affect how quickly/slowly they would decompose.

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6 Answers

marinelife's avatar

“On the open ocean, however, flies and other insects are largely absent. And if the body is floating in water less than 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) for about three weeks, the tissues turn into a soapy fatty acid known as “grave wax” that halts bacterial growth. The skin, however, will still blister and turn greenish black. Finally, crabs and small fish may feed on the soft parts of the face like the eyes and lips, according to the book Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains, by William D. Haglund and Marcella H. Sorg.

A 2002 study in the journal Legal Medicine examined nine bodies that had drifted hundreds of kilometers in cold waters off the coast of Portugal and Spain. Bodies recovered in the first week were in good condition, but the beginning signs of decomposition were present on a body recovered after eight days. The two bodies recovered after 20 days were highly decomposed and could only be identified through DNA analysis or dental records.” Scientific American

thorninmud's avatar

Here’s a video of a forensics experiment designed to explore that question. It uses a pig carcass as a stand-in a human corpse, with a cage designed to fend off larger scavengers. After 6 days, it’s been reduced to a clutter of bones.

KNOWITALL's avatar

Maybe they washed up on shore fairly quickly and wound up in an underwater limstone cave, preserving the body? Chained together?

Coloma's avatar

Depends on many things. If the body falls into waters inhabited by a great Orca migration, well. lol
It would depend on water temps. & types of abundant predators.

Blueroses's avatar

Does anyone else watch Dexter?

I’ve wondered about the likelihood of finding the pieces left by the Bay Harbor Butcher.

Aren’t the Florida oceans conducive to aquatic scavengers? And the temperate waters would surely aid decomp?

thorninmud's avatar

If the “pig” experiment is any indication, decomposition doesn’t necessarily play much of a role. I can’t exactly recommend that anyone watch that video, but if you do, you’ll see that the body gets swarmed by copopods, itty bitty crustations, that do the bulk of the breaking down. And this experiment was done in the cold waters off British Columbia.

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