Royal Ontario Museum begins arduous task of recovering blue whale carcasses
Christina Commisso, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, May 8, 2014 10:10AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, May 8, 2014 1:56PM EDT
The first of two beached blue whales that washed ashore in Newfoundland last month has been transported to a nearby community where a team from the Royal Ontario Museum will begin the process of preserving the skeleton of the giant mammal.
The whale was towed from Trout River to Woody Point on Thursday, where the ROM team will spend about two weeks stripping away the skin, blubber and skeletal muscles of both whales before taking the skeleton apart and packing it up for transport to the Toronto museum.
The ROM said and it took two half-days of work to get a net around the 24-metre-long whale, and three boats to pull it to shore when it arrived at Woody Point.
The process of skinning the whale will begin Thursday. The ROM’s deputy director for collections and research Mark Engstrom said he hopes the process will be completed in about five days, before the team travels to the nearby town of Rocky Harbour to recover another beached whale.
“The Town of Woody Point doesn’t want us to be there very long,” Engstrom said during a Google + Hangout on Thursday.
The tissue samples collected from the whales in Newfoundland will be available to international researchers almost immediately, but the bones won't be ready for scientific study for two to three years.
Engstrom said once the whale are transported to Toronto, the skeletons will be buried in manure and soil to help compost any remaining flesh for about a year.
Samples from the whales will be used to study the accumulation of toxins in their bodies, their diets and certain population dynamics.
The two endangered North Atlantic blue whales were among nine killed by unusually thick sea ice. The ROM has said the nine blue whales represented about five per cent of the population in the North Atlantic.
“It’s a real tragedy,” Engstrom said.
He said the laborious process of transporting and preserving the bones is a worthwhile effort in light of the recent deaths.
The ROM has said it’s unprecedented to have that number blue whales die at once in a single area.
Officials in both Trout River and Rocky Harbour had appealed to the provincial and federal governments for help with the huge and costly job of removing the carcasses. They raised concerns that the rotting whales pose health hazards and could drive away tourists if left to decompose.
Engstrom said the operation is being funded by the museum and will cost tens of thousands of dollars, but it’s well worth it.
"There are very few of them in collections because they're so large, yet they're a very important part of the Canadian fauna and they're all very highly endangered,” he said. “So if someone doesn't go about doing this kind of work now, it may not be possible to do it in the future."
Engstrom said he’d like to eventually have the skeletons on display at the ROM, but it depends on the museum’s funding.
“It’s an immensely expensive project,” he said.