A dead whale greeted students at the Shandong Industry and Commerce Institute in China when they arrived at the school cafeteria on Monday afternoon. No, 'dead whale' isn't a metaphor. Students actually happened upon the body of a dead whale in the cafeteria kitchen, perhaps being readied to be served with their meals.

Unlike in Japan, which allows the sale of whale meat, eating whale is illegal in China, where cetaceans are protected species that are not allowed to be privately bought or sold. It is unknown whether this creature in particular died of natural causes or was caught alive.

Chinese reports say that students who discovered the corpse of the whale called local police, after which the manager of the cafeteria immediately disappeared, taking the whale with him, before authorities arrived. The school, a college located in the port city of Yantai, denies any wrongdoing and says the manager should be held individually responsible.

Chinese journalists who visited the school Tuesday said all traces of the whale's body were gone, and that cafeteria workers were hesitant to disclose any specifics. They did, however, gather from anonymous sources that the whale had weighed around 400 kilograms, or nearly 900 pounds.

Markings on the body identify it as a small minke whale, a species inhabiting all the world's major oceans.

The owner had apparently obtained the whale from a friend, frozen it in a huge freezer for two months, and then brought it out to use in student meals.

As of Wednesday, police have been unable to locate the cafeteria manager or the whale body.

The school says no whale meat was served.

The incident is unlikely to do anything for China's reputation as a country with a vast underground black market for poached odd, exotic and endangered animal species. Whale is not a traditional menu item in China, and many people in the country are opposed to so-called scientific harvesting in neighboring Japan. However, Beijing has received criticism for the destruction of its aquatic habitats through rampant industrialization, which caused the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin and has critically endangered the Yangtze River porpoise.