How do you exhume, disassemble, then reconstruct the skeleton of an immense blue whale that has been dead for 23 years? With quite a bit of difficulty, it turns out.
The story of the blue whale skeleton that will soon open for public viewing at the University of British Columbia begins on Prince Edward Island’s remote northwestern coast where the whale died in 1987.
The whale was buried near the town of Tignish, P.E.I., and that’s where it remained until Andrew Trites decided to dig it up and put it on display at UBC’s new Beaty Biodiversity Museum.
Trites, director of UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit and leader of the effort to recover the 26-metre skeleton and prepare it for exhibit, says he realizes now that he had no idea what he was letting himself in for.
“It’s certainly not what I had thought I was getting into when I first suggested, ‘Why don’t we get a blue whale?’ It was one thing to say something so simple, but it was another thing once we were faced with the reality of what’s involved to dig up the largest animal that’s ever lived on the planet,” he says.
The first surprise came with the discovery that the carcass had hardly decomposed at all.
“It was a shock as we dug through this frozen red soil to discover a very bluish-tinged skin and in fact to realize that the whole whale was still there intact after being underground for 20 years. It was something that none of us had predicted,” Trites says.
It took eight days for a team from UBC along with volunteers from the University of P.E.I. that included biologists, carpenters, veterinary pathologists, knife sharpeners, and machinery operators to excavate the carcass and separate the stinking flesh from the bones.
“We left all the very, very smelly meat and just brought the smelly, smelly bones back,” says Trites. “The bones were just full of rancid oil. I don’t know how many people have smelled rancid oil before, but when it goes rancid you cannot be in the same room with it, it’s so powerful.”
One of the biggest challenges of the whole undertaking was removing the oil from the bones, some of which are sponge-like and extremely porous. Trites notes there isn’t much precedent for degreasing the bones of a blue whale.
“There was a huge learning curve,” he says.
“We spent literally hundreds and hundreds of hours discussing our options and trying different things and consulting with specialists, but no one has ever tried to clean the oil out of a whale this big before.”
Longer than two city buses parked one behind the other, the blue whale is the largest creature in existence. Its heart is as big as a small car and its tongue weighs as much as an entire elephant.
“You could effectively have 55 people standing on its tongue, and a child could crawl through its artery, it’s that big,” says Trites.
It is also the loudest animal. At 190 decibels, a blue whale’s call is louder than a jet (140 decibels), and much louder than a person can shout (70 decibels).
This particular whale, a female about 70 years old, had been hit by a ship, with the result that part of its giant skull was shattered. That and any other missing bones were rebuilt by a company in Drumheller, Alberta.
The oil removal process took place in Victoria, after which a team of sculptors, technicians, scientists, and students set about repairing and reassembling the 500 or so bones.
The fact that the body was so well-preserved provided a rare opportunity to examine the bone structure of the whale’s flipper—something that hasn’t been possible in the past—making this one the most accurately assembled blue whale skeletons in the world, Trites says.
The skeleton was moved to UBC last month where it will go on display May 22—International Day of Biodiversity—suspended in a glass atrium in the centre of the campus. The museum itself, to consist of over 2 million specimens, will open later this year.
Estimated to weigh about three-and-a-half tons, the skeleton will be in the shape of the blue whale’s signature lunge-feeding pose, thanks to the expertise of master articulator Mike deRoos.
“He’s really given this whale a second life and when you see it in its final spot it looks as though this animal is swimming through space. It’s not flat and static, it breathes life and it’s quite inspirational to see,” says Trites.
There are just six blue whale exhibits in North America. The only other such exhibit in Canada will be unveiled at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa this summer.
With only about 4,500 blue whales remaining in the world, down from down from 350,000 before whaling began, Trites says the exhibit will help raise awareness about conservation and the threats facing much of Canada’s marine life.
“The whale’s going to help people to discover many different stories, but in particular to understand the importance of biodiversity and the need we have to conserve and protect it,” he says, adding that blue whales, an endangered species, have disappeared in B.C. with numbers heavily depleted on the east coast.
“Personally I feel that it is a national treasure, and that’s how we’'ve seen it—as we’ve saved something.”