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A Whale of a Story

author: Paul Dalby

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A dead-end street overlooking the Bay of Quinte in Trenton seems an unlikely spot for a ground-breaking CSI-style investigation. But this past summer, three scientists, tucked under a canvas canopy and surrounded by floodlights, carried out a post-mortem that rewrote the textbooks.
The whole affair was cloaked in secrecy, but then the deceased was royalty: the monarch in question was a great blue whale, known the world over as the “Queen of the Deep”.

AFTER YEARS OF EDUCATED GUESSWORK, the scientists finally had a chance to unlock the mystery of the gigantic creature’s “power pack” – by dissecting its heart.

Known facts about the blue whale’s heart are part-myth, part-guesswork with a dash of Jules Verne. Is it really as big as a VW Beetle? Almost. Can you swim up its aorta? The answer is “No”. But in Trenton it did take six people and a front-end loader to hoist this whale’s 80 cubic foot heart, weighing 180 kilograms, onto the operating table.

The preservation of the blue whale’s heart is part of a larger project that aims to display the biggest creature on Earth at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) by 2017.

For the past year, the super-sized skeleton of the blue whale, affectionately named Lollipop, has languished in one of three 48-foot shipping containers behind Research Casting International (RCI), its flesh gradually decomposing in a mixture of manure and sawdust. The process of “cooking” the whales’ bones at RCI and removing any soft tissue still clinging to the skeletons is a combination of great technical ingenuity and a truly organic local resource. “The sea containers have some modifications. We cut off the tops with a heavy-duty saw to let them breathe and then cut holes along the sides for air circulation,” explained Peter May.

While the RCI team adapted the shipping containers in Trenton, just down the highway in Prince Edward County an entire dairy farm of Holsteins was busy generating enough manure to bury the bones. It took the 385 cows almost three months to fill up eight dump trucks to produce the right amount of enriched “end product”.

Armed with all the necessary ingredients of a truly odious compost heap, RCI staff started building their own kind of layer cake. “We put in a layer of manure, a layer of bones, a layer of manure, a layer of bones and built it all up until the container was full,” said Peter May.

The lower jawbones, each five metres long and weighing a ton, were carefully lifted with front loaders and gingerly lowered into the container, on top of which was heaped more layers of manure.

The manure-and-sawdust cocktail was truly an eastern Ontario rural solution to a complex scientific problem. Working much the same as your backyard garden composter, the containers do stink a bit and attract swarms of flies but they certainly get the job done fast.

Once the composting stage has been completed, the skeletons will be degreased to remove the oils and fats embedded in them. Experts acknowledge there’s no easy way to degrease a whale skeleton. At RCI, the restoration team will take all the bones and put them through a hot vapour cleansing process.


THE HEART OF THE MATTER
Lollipop’s massive heart took four days to thaw after it was removed from the deep freeze. With a plan for its preservation in hand, scientists went to work.

“It was the first blue whale we had worked on. Not many people get that opportunity in their lifetime,” said Jacqui Miller, ROM’s mammalogy technician leading the operation. “You have a general idea of what you should find. But when you get in there and it’s something that big, it’s like working on a Rubik’s cube from inside the cube.”

Miller and two American expert veterinary surgeons worked against the clock to retrieve sample tissue for DNA testing before plugging up all but two of the whale heart’s ventricles. This would allow them to start plastination of the giant organ (think modern day mummification), but there was one big problem – all the corks Miller brought for the job were too small.

“So I went to the local dollar store and hardware shop in Trenton to look for anything that would be a suitable shape for its vessels,” she explained. “We came back with everything from bathroom plungers that actually took the shape of the heart valve quite nicely, to soft drink bottles, detergent bottles, even buckets.”

The homemade solutions worked like a charm and the preservation of the heart continued without a hitch. For Jacqui Miller, a former ER nurse who took on a second career in animal anatomy (ironically training on mice), this was a “monstrously” unforgettable experience. Rather like the story of Lollipop itself.


AN INCREDIBLE JOURNEY
Lollipop was one of a pod of nine great blue whales trapped and crushed by thick ice in April, 2014 off the shores of Newfoundland. Suffocated to death, two of the massive whales, each weighing 100 tonnes, washed up on the beaches of the small communities of Trout River and Rocky Harbour, near Gros Morne National Park.

This cruel turn of fate presented a golden opportunity for scientists to retrieve the whale’s skeleton and to analyze its DNA, potentially solving the mystery of why blue whales are no longer reproducing well. The western Atlantic population in Canadian waters is particularly troubled and there are likely no more than 250 adults left.

How the Canadian team achieved their twin goals and succeeded in bringing the remains of Lollipop together with a second great blue whale to the jumbo compost containers behind RCI in Trenton is a rescue story that defied all the odds.

It was the culmination of a 2,350-kilometre race against the clock by air and land, with a side-trip along the way to Saturday Night Live. Key to the whole ambitious plan to bring the blue whales “back to a second life” was Peter May’s Research Casting company – first choice of top museums for restoring or replicating the world’s rarest specimens.

Sometime early this fall, Peter May and scientists from the Royal Ontario Museum will start the next phase of a wildly ambitious plan: reconstructing the whale skeletons in all their splendour to put on display at both the ROM and Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

“We’ll take them [the bones] out and have a look at them and see how far along they are. We could be working on them this fall, putting them through a hot vapour cleansing process which will remove the oil from the bone,” May said. “Whales have a lot of oil in the bone. So we remove all of that. You don’t want oil dripping on peoples’ heads in the museum hall.”

After the bones are degreased, the whale vertebrae, fins, skull, and jawbone will be threaded onto metal rods that hold the individual pieces together while they are preserved with a plastic application.


ALL IN A DAY’S WORK
Peter May’s small army of 25 sculptors, carpenters, painters, blacksmiths and technicians have used their talents a thousand times over the past three decades to create giant-sized prehistoric wonders for exhibitions around the globe. Whether it’s making exact replicas or restoring skeletons, the folks at RCI are always equal to the task.

The floor of the RCI warehouse – big as an aircraft hangar with 45,000 square feet of floor space and a height clearance of 25 feet – is a constant buzz of activity.

Aside from the two blue whales, the RCI specialists are kept busy on many projects. “We are working with the Smithsonian till 2019,” May said. “We have been down there for the past year, dismantling sixty specimens now all housed back here in Trenton in crates.”

“Some had been on exhibit since 1910, so we have to clean and restore them and mount them in new poses for the halls,” he said. “They have shut down the halls at the Smithsonian while we do this.”

In its 27 years of operation, Research Casting has produced custom exhibits for famous museums all over the world, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History to the Paleo Museum in Oslo to the National Science Museum in Tokyo to the New Zealand Museum in Wellington. But even with this kind of résumé, Peter May and his team are a little awed by the sheer scale and size of the blue whales.

“I never imagined I would be doing this all those years ago when I graduated from the University of Guelph with a fine arts degree majoring in sculpture,” May says with a smile. “I’m still not sure if I am just imagining it. It’s larger than life.”

Back in April 2014, when he first received an excited phone call from Dr. Mark Engstrom at the Royal Ontario Museum asking for help in recovering and restoring the great blue whales, Peter May needed no second bidding.

Senior curator and deputy director of ROM’s collections and research, Dr. Engstrom had only just heard news of the whales washing up on Newfoundland’s shores.

 

A WHALE OF A PROBLEM
The whales’ arrival had quite literally raised a stink. The local townspeople were worried not only about the stench of the slowly decomposing whales but also by the prospect that their bodies, now bloated by gas, would literally explode.

Dr. Engstrom grabbed the phone to the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to get the green light for an urgent rescue mission by a team of scientists.

"Whales don't die very often, luckily, but when they do, you have to be ready to go. You can’t hesitate,” Dr. Engstrom told Watershed. “You have to take the bull by the horns...If a whale is dead on a beach, you don’t have time to pull together funding. You have to say, ‘By God I’m going to raise the money later,' which is what I did,” said Dr. Engstrom, channeling a bit of Indiana Jones.

The recovery mission would eventually cost tens of thousands of dollars but nothing could dampen the enthusiasm of Dr. Engstrom. Within three days he had put together a nine-man team from the ROM and Research Casting, backed up by three local workers and an American volunteer.

But as soon as they reached Trout River, Dr. Engstrom knew that the team could not work on the whale in its present location because it had landed right beneath the small town’s boardwalk.

The only solution was to have the whale they had nicknamed Lollipop towed to another wider beach where they could work on her unhindered and with easy access. “We had to tow the whale because it was blowing up, expanding, and people were worried that it was going to explode, which it wouldn’t do,”he said. “But it was a big story and it became a skit on Saturday Night Live.”

The SNL cast took the whale story and ran with it, turning it into a Gidget Goes to the Beach episode.

The cast were drenched in slime when the whales “exploded” all over their beach party.

In real life, the whales’ story was no less dramatic but a good deal messier. The nearby town of Woody Point – population 281, midway between Trout River and Rocky Harbour – had approved the team’s request to use a local fishing trawler to tow Lollipop to their beach with a single proviso: the work had to be finished within seven days.

 

WORKING AGAINST THE CLOCK
“We worked from dawn till dusk and it took us six days to finish the work. And that was really fast,” said Dr. Engstrom. “I had never been to Newfoundland before and the people were fantastic to work with.”

Each day, members of the RCI team donned their chest waders, rain jackets, and heavy gloves to con- tinue the task of reducing the largest species of ani- mal to ever live on Earth to a pile of bones.

Near the end of the first day, the mouth was cut into to release remaining gases and allow fluids of decomposition to drain.

Using backhoes, winches, and flensing tools, the crew stripped the flesh, blubber, and organs from the carcass, and arranged for the whale viscera to be trucked to a local landfill. The stench and gore was
indescribable.

At the end of six gruelling days, the exhausted team members packed the skeletal remains into a shipping container and loaded it onto an 18-wheeler truck for the long road trip to Quinte West.

A month later another six-person Research Casting crew led by Jacqui Miller came back to Rocky Harbour and repeated the process to deliver a second blue whale to RCI back in Trenton.
The preservation of the great blue whale will be the culmination of a 10-year dream for Mark Engstrom – to have a major national exhibit showcasing all the great whales of Canada.

“The story of the blue whale has remained in the public eye and in their imagination,” said Dr. Engstrom. “I think it’s the scale, the biggest animal that’s ever lived. Blue whales figure more in people’s mythology. I have been working on the whale project for ten years. I hope people will be thrilled by it.”

His team has already retrieved a humpback, fin, minke, sperm, right and killer whale. But only two museums in Canada have a blue, and the last chance to acquire one happened fully 25 years ago. It’s easy to understand why there is so much excitement over Lollipop, the blue whale.

Dr. Engstrom predicts that the mammoth whale skeleton – far bigger than any prehistoric animal – will be literally, and figuratively, the lone centrepiece in the Royal Ontario Museum’s exhibition hall collection by 2017 - just in time to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. Some birthday present!

 

THE BLUE WHALE
Biggest and loudest, that’s the calling card of the blue whale. Tipping the scales at up to 180 tonnes, the blue whale is the largest creature ever to have lived on earth.

Their tongues alone weigh as much as an elephant, their heart is as heavy as a family sedan. The typical blue whale is longer than a Toronto streetcar at 30 metres. But the Queen of the Deep only looks blue in colour when she is swimming under water. The moment that a blue whale is tragically washed up on a beach, the colouring reverts to a mottled grey.

Despite the blue whales’ massive dimensions, they are graceful swimmers in the ocean, cruising at a sedate 8 kilometres per hour. But when the occasion demands or the whale is agitated, the blue can rev up to 32 kph, outrunning most shipping vessels.

Blue whales are also among the loudest animals on the planet. They emit a series of pulses, groans, and moans, and scientists believe that in good conditions, blue whales can hear each other up to 1,600 kilometres away.

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