Image: Lisa Cumming

This 600-Pound Preserved Blue Whale Heart Will Last 1,000 Years

It's the first preserved blue whale heart in the world.

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May 18 2017, 3:52pm

Image: Lisa Cumming

What weighs 600 pounds, has travelled internationally, and recently spent over four months in a vacuum chamber? A real, actual blue whale heart, the first one in the entire world to be preserved, now on display at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto.

The blue whale heart is installed at the ROM on Thursday. Video: ROM

It was unveiled on Thursday morning, next to the skeleton of the massive blue whale it came from. The plastinated heart, which is roughly the size of a small pony, is "a thing of beauty," said Jacqueline Miller, a mammalogy technician from the ROM who's been working with the whale since it was first discovered in 2014, washed up on a beach in Trout River, along Newfoundland and Labrador's west coast.

"It's quite a bit smaller than we were expecting," Miller said. She and others thought they'd pull out something the size of a sedan, or at least the smart car that the museum put on display for size comparison.

Without its blood and supporting structure, the heart weighs around 400 pounds, but Miller explained that the weight increased again when their team put steel mesh inside to keeps the ventricles and the thinner blood vessels from collapsing.

The Epic Task of Preparing Rare Blue Whale Skeletons for Display:


The unveiling today wasn't just a quick ta-da moment. The heart came in a box. It had to be unwrapped (so much bubble wrap) and lifted onto a platform. Things hit a bit of a snag when it came to lifting the heart off of the stand inside the box: Miller, who was narrating the unboxing, said that there was some concern over damaging it, but in the end the heart was placed on its new platform without getting a scratch, while people "oooohed" and "aaaaahed" over the size of the thing.

The whale heart represents the maximum size a heart can be and support a living, breathing creature, said Miller. "This is as big as things can get."

Unwrapping the heart from its bubble wrap. Image: Lisa Cumming

Before going on display in Toronto, the heart travelled from Canada to Germany, where technicians at Geuben Plastinate GmbH, a museum, worked on it for over a year. Because of the size, no one knew exactly how long the plastination process would take. Miller said the heart had to travel to Germany because there is no facility in North America big enough to handle a whale heart. The organ is just too damn big.

Read More: We Watched Gigantic Blue Whale Bones Get 'Degreased'

First, scientists had to get all the water out of the tissue, down to cellular level. They did this by placing the heart in an acetone bath, said Miller. Next, they had to put it in a polymer bath. After that, scientists put the whole tank of polymer in a vacuum chamber so that the existing acetone would bubble and boil away.

"Fat is very hard to plastinate," said Miller. The heart was in this vacuum for over four months.

Now that the process is over, Miller affectionately calls it "Frankenheart" and compared the unveiling to the birth of a child because she's been working on it for so long.

The heart. Video: ROM

"It really is tremendous," she said. "We're very, very proud."

The heart will last hundreds of years, if not a thousand, said Miller. So when humans are all eating sustainably-farmed seaweed and hunting aliens in submarines, we'll always be able to marvel at what once was and just how small we really are.

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