WOODY POINT, N.L. - On a cold, clear Newfoundland morning last week, a man slicked neck to toe in whale grease read aloud from a sort of shopping list.
“He wants a grapefruit-sized sample of liver, kidney, lung and ovary, but he said the ovary might be all mushy. He wants an eight-inch-wide part of the aorta. He wants an eye lens, if we can get it. He wants the wax earplugs and the longest pieces of baleen, starting below the gum line.”
The man covered in grease was Burton Lim, assistant curator of mammalogy at the Royal Ontario Museum. The wish list was from Jack Lawson, a marine mammal research scientist at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
And they were “shopping” from the exposed abdominal cavity of a subway-car-length, 100-plus-tonne dead blue whale. The whale had floated to the shore of Trout River, Newfoundland, two weeks ago, bloated with gas, captivating the world with the threat it might explode.
It didn’t. But after the ROM gained permission to take the whale’s skeleton back to Ontario, the gods of gross-out news handed reporters a new gift.
For six days in neighbouring Woody Point, a full-bore, five-sense assault unspooled. Smell: an oppressive miasma of the sourest stench imaginable combined with rancid grease. Sight: egg yolk-yellow spinal matter dripping from vertebrae the size of tree trunks. Sound: the thunk of meat hooks sinking into rotting blubber. Touch: greasy goo, everywhere. There was even a taste for anyone unlucky enough to be caught open-mouthed at the wrong time.
The last pieces of blubber have been scraped from the site, and the reporters have all gone home. But the whale will now become fodder for a different audience: researchers. And it will sustain their interest for many years to come.
Blue whales are the biggest animal ever to exist on Earth, but we know very little about them. And this individual came from a Canadian group that is struggling to reproduce, for reasons researchers do not understand.
The loss of a mature female — at least three, actually; two more washed ashore along the same coast — is a severe blow to conservation efforts. But it is a precious opportunity to study an exquisitely evolved animal, and perhaps find out why her population is under threat.
Lawson first laid eyes on the soon-to-be-famous whale corpse on March 21. It wasn’t quite clear what he was looking at, though.
A woman in southwest Newfoundland had snapped pictures of something dark in the sea ice. The dark masses were baleen whales, Lawson could tell, and they were big.
“We were worried they were blues,” he says. A flyover confirmed it: nine mature blue whales, apparently crushed in sea ice. Lawson was horrified.
“It’s the worst possible thing you can see if you’re trying to recover a population.”
Blue whales are endangered globally. But the Western Atlantic population that frequents Canadian waters is particularly troubled. While the Eastern Atlantic group that swims from Iceland to the Azores numbers at least 1,100, there are likely no more than 250 adults here.
Worse, the whales aren’t reproducing well. In 35 years of monitoring this population, Richard Sears, the founder and director of the Mingan Island Cetacean Study on the St. Lawrence River, has spotted just 22 calves. Lawson has seen two in 10 years.
“There’s something going on with the animals in the Northwest Atlantic that’s not good,” says Sears.
When the dead blue whale drifted into Trout River in mid-April, however, the overwhelming concern was for humans. The decomposing corpse was bloated with gases. Dead whales have exploded before, and the tourism season was imminent. The town panicked; news media went nuts.
Unbeknownst to either, plans to remove the whale were already well underway.
Mark Engstrom had seen news of the nine dead whales and contacted Lawson weeks earlier to say that if one beached, the ROM, where he is deputy director of collections and research, wanted it. He has been planning an exhibit on cetaceans — marine mammals — for years.
Engstrom had collected a humpback, fin, minke, sperm, right and killer whale. But only two museums in Canada have a blue, and the last opportunity to acquire one came up 25 years ago. A blue whale, more massive than any known dinosaur, would be the capstone of the ROM’s collection.
When the DFO announced that the ROM had permission to remove Trout River’s blue whale and another in Rocky Harbour, some townsfolk protested. Why did a museum in Ontario get to keep it when tourism is the town’s lifeblood?
Pretty soon after work on the corpse began, talk like that died out.
“We’re used to dealing with some nasty crap, but this is next level,” said Meredith Schofield, a volunteer from the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium.
Flensing, the stripping of whale blubber, was a practice familiar to Newfoundlanders just a generation ago. A beached blue whale would have been a bounty before the last two commercial whaling stations in the province shut down in 1972.
Today, the removal of tens of tonnes of whale flesh is a logistical nightmare, not to mention a nauseating mess.
The nine-man team — Lim and Engstrom from the ROM, three people from Ontario’s Research Casting International, three local workers and an American volunteer — started at the tail of the upside-down whale, removing chunks of blubber and decomposing meat with kitchen knives and huge fish hooks.
As vertebrae were exposed and sawed off, a thick carpet of flesh from the whale’s broad backside remained. Far too heavy to lift, the crew dealt with it by threading a sturdy rope through an incision in the flesh and lifting it with a front-end loader, so the men could cut it into manageable pieces while it hung mid-air.
All the discarded chunks were thrown into the loader’s bucket, dumped into a waiting truck and carted off to landfill. The bones — Fred-Flintstone-size ribs, a flipper with a ball joint the size of a beach ball — were identified with coded poker chips and loaded into a semi-trailer triple-lined with plastic.
On Friday afternoon, when the abdominal cavity was exposed, Jack Lawson’s want-list could be fulfilled.
The whale had been dead nearly two months, so its viscera were practically liquefied. But Lim — who specializes in bats but has necropsied an elephant — was able to identify spleen, lungs, heart and liver from the oozing cavity. (Engstrom started using “pudding gusher” as a technical term.)
For safekeeping at the ROM, small samples of organ tissue were scraped into cryogenic tubes and dropped into liquid nitrogen, flash-freezing them. The DFO’s samples, along with a slice of aorta the width of basketball, were bagged and picked up by fisheries officers.
The eye lens and ear wax could have been used to age the whale, which could be anywhere from 10 to 80 years old or more at sexual maturity, and scars on the ovaries would show whether she had calved. But all three were long gone, picked apart by seagulls or lost in the mush.
On Monday, when the crew used heavy machinery to peel back the massive sheet of blubber that housed the lower jaw, Lim got access to the baleen, the filter-feeder system made of hard, venetian-blind-like strips that end in a wiry mat. He sawed a big chunk of the baleen off at the root and bagged it for pickup.
By Wednesday, there was nothing left of the whale in Woody Point but its massive upper cranium, which was too big to fit in the trailer and will probably be ferried in a shipping container.
Lawson wanted the aorta for show-and-tell. But everything else will be pored over to try to understand what is plaguing these blue whales.
“We’re just looking for any clues as to why this population isn’t doing as well as we think it should be,” says Lawson.
Lawson’s colleagues, and researchers who request a sample from the DFO or the ROM, will begin screening the whale’s organ tissue and blubber samples for the presence of pollutants.
Belugas in the St. Lawrence estuary have been shown to carry high levels of mercury, PCBs, DDT, the banned insecticide Mirex, and other toxic contaminants.
It would be surprising if high levels of these turn up in the Trout River blue whale. The species feeds much lower down on the food chain, so has less exposure than a beluga. Their presence would be a major red flag, while their absence will help researchers focus their inquiries elsewhere: the whale’s baleen, for one.
Baleen is made of keratin, like our finger nails. As it grows, it stores information about the animal’s diet: stable isotopes, for example. It might show that the krill supply has changed over time, or other problems in the ecosystem.
All of these lines of inquiry will give researchers rare biological insights into what is going on with the Atlantic blue whales. “What someone could learn about lions in two years would take us 20,” says Sears.
In the case of the Trout River whale and her eight kin, however, the direct cause of mortality is pretty well settled: death by ice. In previous decades, when ice cover was more regular, it was common to see one or two, at most five, blue whales killed by ice. That happens less now that climate change has decreased ice cover.
“Maybe whales just aren’t used to the ice anymore,” said Sears.
Genetic information from the Trout River whale will also provide crucial insights. Is it a match for DNA from several blue whales already on file? Are the western and eastern Atlantic populations really distinct? The Canadian Barcode of Life Network, which is building a database of genetic information for every species in Canada, will get its first blue whale.
And when the ROM uploads information about its new collection to international databases for researchers, requests from all over the world will begin filtering in — a dead-whale explosion of a more controlled fashion.
There is, of course, much to be learned from this whale independently of scientific research, and all of that will occur after the whale’s skeleton has been degreased, reassembled and mounted for display (a goal many years and millions of fundraising dollars away; the next step for the skeleton will be to bury it in compost for 12 months).
Engstrom intends to focus his hoped-for cetacean exhibit around two major tent poles: evolution and conservation.
Every fifth-grader knows that whales are mammals, not fish. But what that really means becomes much more apparent when you see its remarkable skeleton. A blue whale’s flipper bones have a disconcerting similarity to human anatomy, only the proportion is off: the arm bones are much shorter, while the finger-equivalent bones are longer, the better to balance underwater. Some blue whales even have vestigial hind legs enclosed in their skin, remnants of a former life on land. These exquisite adaptations create a convenient venue for talking about evolution, says the Nick Pyenson, curator of marine mammal fossils at the Smithsonian.
“The question is always why did the whale go back to water. We can’t tell you why, we can tell you how,” he says. Incredibly, whales’ closest living terrestrial relatives are hippos: fossil evidence shows that cetaceans evolved from hoofed animals.
As for conservation, people seem to have a fascination with their mammalian kin that doesn’t translate to endangered bugs or frogs. The sheer scale of a blue whale ratchets up that emotional connection.
“Even though it’s dead, it’s still an amazing thing to be able walk for 85 feet (26 metres) along the side of what was once a living thing, and be able to see just how beautifully streamlined they are and how super evolved to live in the marine environment,” says Lawson.
“It’s sad, but it’s an unparalleled opportunity.”