Another whale, another place Image: Sequoia Hughes/Flickr
While gazing upon the as-yet-unexploded blue whale, most of us saw something gross and potentially hilarious, or more empathetic viewers might have seen an Antigone-level indignity for Earth's largest creature. The deputy director of collections and research at the Royal Ontario Museum, Mark Engstrom, recognized the dual nature of a situation that was both a “real tragedy” and an opportunity.
Lost in “Will It Blow? Mania 2014™," was that Bloaty the Blue Whale was one of nine blue whales that died off the coast of Newfoundland in last winter's unusually thick sea ice. According to the Royal Ontario Museum, that's 5 percent of the North Atlantic's endangered blue whale population.
But Canadians are known to never let a dead whale pass them by (is that something they're known for?), and so the Royal Ontario Museum is going to preserve two giant blue whale skeletons. “In last 20 years, this is the first time that I know of an accessible blue whale,” Engstrom told the Toronto Star . “I think it’s very important that we be able to preserve these for research and that we have them permanently in a collection.”
Now, getting the flesh off of smaller specimen—like say, an ape—is quite simple. Just strip off what you can, then drop the rest into a tank full of flesh-eating beetles, and them take it away.
The beetles at work at the Field Museum Chicago. Image: Ben Richmond
But whale dimensions make this less than practical, and you don't want your flesh-eating beetles eating that much blubber anyway, probably. So the ROM is going with the human approach.
After spending two half-days to net the 24-meter-long, 100 tonne whale corpse, three boats pulled it to shore on Woody Point . Engstrom—and the residents of Woody Point—hope that it will only take five days for a team from the museum to strip the flesh off the carcass using “large knives” to make “big incisions.” Some of the flesh will be sent to laboratories, where it will be tested to learn about whale diets, toxins they encounter, and even some group dynamics. The rest of the flesh will be taken to a landfill. It isn't getting any more dignified for this poor bastard.
By all accounts this activity smells about like you'd expect that it would. “Yeah, dead whales have a very distinctive odour and this one is a big dead whale!” Engstrom told the Star.
According to Maurice Budgell, chair of the King's Point Heritage Society, his own town was pretty taken aback by the smell of a rotting humpback whale carcass that they took the skeleton out of 10 years ago.
“The biggest problem for us were just [the] volunteers not in the fishing business—it was the smell of the whale, the smell of the blubber." Budgell told the CBC. He warned that the blue whale had to be removed, “I'm tellin' ya, or [the communities are] going to have a real big problem on their hands this summer with regards to the smell ... Not only the smell, but I mean the flies are going to be in the millions around that particular whale this summer. I'm tellin' ya, it's going to be a real environmental problem."
CTV News reports that it could take two weeks to strip all the blubber, skin, and skeletal muscle off of the blue whale carcass, which must sound terrible to any downwind residents of Woody Point. Engstrom said the museum team was trying to get some “heavy equipment” to speed things along, but equipment rental agencies might have a legitimate reason to be leery of loaning anything to project “Skeleton Extraction.”
Budgell told the CBC that some of the equipment used to get the flesh off the bones still smells like rotting whale blubber, 10 years after the task was completed.
Anyway, five days, two weeks, or whenever, the skeleton will be loaded onto trucks and taken back to Ontario. Rather than being dry mounted then, the bones have to be buried with soil and manure for an entire year, to let nature remove the remaining flesh. Then the whale has to be dug back up, and the bones have to be treated even further to remove the remaining oil from them. Whales. So oily.
Other skulls, other places. Image: Tim Gage/Flickr
All told it will be about three years before the skeleton is done being processed, and the ROM might not even have the money to display the skeleton— it may sink into the dark waters of the research collection . I guess that's understandable—it takes a lot of space to display an animal with a 9 meter skull, whose heart was big enough for kids to play in. Still, that would be yet another cruel twist in a smelly, blubber cutting, whale exhuming odyssey.