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Why This Blue Whale's Massive Heart Is Being Blown Up Like a Beach Ball

The months-long process of thawing, inflating, preserving and displaying a blue whale's heart has never been done before.

If you ever find yourself in the possession of a massive, frozen whale heart, here are some tips: don't thaw it out too quickly, don't inflate it too fast, and definitely don't forget your arsenal of toilet plungers and Pepsi cans you'll need to plug all the arteries up.

Earlier this month, a team from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) began the the months-long process of thawing, inflating, and preserving a recovered blue whale's heart—and eventually, will put the specimen up for display in the museum.

The heart was recovered from the second of two whales that washed ashore last year on the coast of Newfoundland (the first, if you'll recall, threatened to explode), and has been frozen ever since. For a sense of its size, the heart has been stored in a massive tank stored out in Trenton, Ontario, that was custom made to the ROM's specifications. It holds 1,000 gallons worth of water, and the heart itself weighs over 400 pounds. Jacqueline Miller, a mammalogy technician at the ROM, estimates the heart was roughly four feet by four feet by five feet in the chest—about half the size of a Smart car. It took six people and a front-end loader to lift the whole thing.

The blue whale heart gets an ice bath. Image: Stacey Lee Kerr/ROM Biodiversity

While it's not the first time a whale's heart has been recovered or preserved in this way, Miller said, it's unlike anything they've seen before.

"Something of this size has not been done, or at least not with anyone in our particular academic community," she told me over the phone on June 4, nearly a week into the process. "This is new territory. No one has dissected out a blue whale heart, and we don't know a great deal about it."

According to Miller, the team began defrosting the heart on a Friday earlier this month, and took until the following Tuesday to fully thaw—a period of about five days. Unlike the hastily thawed chicken breast you tried to cook for dinner last week, defrosting the whale's heart required a slow process of regularly changed water baths, necessary to prevent the heart from drying out or tearing.

Once defrosted, "The first stage in this is to get it into some semblance of a shape that resembled what it looked like when you got it out of the thoracic cavity," Miller explained. In other words, they had to inflate the massive heart.

"It's immersed in the tank, and we do our best to get all these vessels that we need to stop. Basically, they're corked with various structures [and] each vessel has its own diameter," Miller said. "So we've had to be very creative. Initially, you think, on a smaller specimen you just use corks of various sizes. Well, this is huge. So we've done everything from toilet plungers to ten gallon buckets to Pepsi cola cans and bottles. It depends on what the vessel is and what you can put in there. So that took a little bit of creativity."

Things being used to plug the arteries of this blue whale heart include a ten gallon bucket and toilet plunger. Image: Samantha Phillips/ROM Biodiversity

Once the team was certain the heart would take fluid, the next step was to fix the heart in its inflated state using a diluted formaldehyde solution called formalin. This prevents the heart from further degrading—a process that resumed as soon as the heart began to thaw—and makes the proteins and muscles of the heart rigid so that it holds its form.

A small plastic tube the size of a garden hose—that's how big the heart's arteries are—pumped the organ with formalin, and Miller and her team closed any remaining open vessels off. That left them with, basically, a big, formalin-filled ball. Sealed back in its container, the fixing process will take about a month.

According to Miller, the heart will stay in its tank until it is ready to be plastinated—essentially, given the same treatment as the specimens you might see at a Bodyworlds exhibition. The ROM has been working with Paul Nader and Robert Henry from Lincoln Memorial University in the United States, who have plastinated smaller sperm and pilot whale hearts, but nothing of this size, Miller said.

Given the heart's age, they'll have a window of just several months for plastination to begin—but that also gives the team lots of time to think their next steps through, and study what they've already learned.

"In the current literature, and in the common literature, there's very little information about the cardiovascular and other physiological systems in the blue whale, and these are interesting things because whales have to have a lot of adaptations to allow them to exist as they do in a completely aquatic environment," Miller explained. "Diving strains, for instance, not just on body form, but certainly on your cardiovascular system, on your respiratory system."

When the heart finally makes its way to the museum, visitors will be in for a treat, too. "It's the largest animal, and obviously the largest heart is from the largest animal," said Miller. "The public will have never seen something of that dimension."