Dr. Mark Engstrom helping to prepare the whale for it's trip back to the Royal Ontario Museum.
In May 2014, a small ROM team travelled to Newfoundland to salvage a Blue Whale that had washed ashore. This unfortunate event presents an unprecedented opportunity to study one of the more endangered species of marine mammals—blue whales are listed as endangered under Schedule 1 of the federal Species at Risk Act.
As animals decompose there is a buildup of three gases: hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and methane. While the production of these three has caused the whale to bloat, there was never any risk of the whole animal exploding. In fact, the gasses seep out of the carcass naturally as the tissue breaks down.
What is the plan for collection?
The whale washed ashore in Trout River (NL), but was towed to Woody Point (NL) which had a more accessible site. Here, the team has spent about a week taking the whale apart. They started by removing the skin, blubber, and the internal organs before stripping the muscles from the bones. The whole skeleton was disarticulated bone by bone. The skeleton will be placed in containers with soil and compost to be transported to Toronto. The compost helps remove the remaining flesh from the bones, and this can take at least a year. Afterwards, the next major step is to degrease the skeleton, which can take another two to three years.
How big is the whale?
Big! Blue whales are the largest animals that have ever lived. This particular specimen, a female nicknamed “Lollipop”, is 76.5 ft (23.3 m) long; that’s about the length of an 18 wheeler transport truck. The skull alone is 30 ft (9 m) long and the aorta (a major blood vessel of the heart) is large enough for a human head to fit inside.
How smelly is it?
To be clear, it is a very smelly project. The team from Newfoundland had this to say:
"There’s nothing that smells much worse than a dead whale" Mark Engstrom
"It's more of a taste than a smell" Jacqueline Waters
Why did nine blue whales die during the winter?
Like the rest of Canada, Newfoundland experienced a harsh winter this year, and with it came abnormally thick sea ice. It is likely that the whale were crushed by the unusually thick icesheets or drowned while trapped under the ice and unable to get air. This phenomenon is known as “ice entrapment”. Blue whales from the Western North Atlantic population have died in the past because of ice entrapment in this area, but never before has such a large group died in the same season.
What will happen to the other eight whales, including the whale at Rocky Harbor?
The ROM is committed to collecting, preserving and displaying the Trout River blue whale. However, each whale would require the same amount of effort, funding and time and at this point the ROM cannot commit to working on any other whales. Towing the whales out and sinking them may be the best option for the eight remaining blue whales. Their remains will continue as part of the marine food web, in what’s called a “whale fall”. For a wonderful video about this phenomenon, check out “Whale Fall (After Life of a Whale)” [directed by Sharon Shattuck and Flora Lichtman of Sweet Fern Productions in collaboration with producer Lynn Levy of RadioLab.
Globally there are as few as 5,000 blue whales left in the world. However, the Western North Atlantic population only has 200-250 individuals and this population is designated as critically endangered by Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA). The death of the nine this winter represents a 5% loss from this population.
Why are there so few North Atlantic Blue whales?
One word: whaling. Global populations of blue whales were destroyed by commercial whaling, with hundreds of thousands harvested around the world. In Canadian waters, ~1,500 blue whales were harvest between 1868 and 1951, many off the Southwest and Eastern coast of Newfoundland.
How does this project help the living blue whale population?
From the tissue samples collected from the Trout River blue whale, we can learn about the feeding habits of the endangered Western North Atlantic population, acquire information about their genetic relationship to the global population of blue whales, and the degree of accumulation of the toxins in its body that are known to impact marine mammals, including Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) like DDT, mercury, and flame retardants. As a critically endangered animal any information about its genetics, anatomy and links to other research projects will greatly benefit research on the conservation on the remaining population.
How will the whale be divided among the research community?
What will researchers be looking for in this tissue sample?
Longterm research data has been collected on the Western North Atlantic blue whale population, including genetic studies. This female “Lollipop” may already be associated with existing information from previous research, and be known to the scientists who have been gathering data on this population for 20+ years. If so, additional information about her condition, physiology, and how she died will be helpful in learning more about these critically endangered animals.
What is ambergris, and did the team find any when they were working on the whale?
Ambergris is a thick, waxy substance that is found only in sperm whales, and is produced by their digestive system to help them digest harder materials in the food they eat, like the beaks from squid. Usually it leaves the whales’ system normally like other waste, but for larger bits, it comes out of the whale’s mouth, which is why sometimes people say that ambergris is “whale vomit”. It used to be prized by the cosmetic industry, because once ambergris dries out, it has a pleasant smell, and was used to help make perfume scents last longer. Now this is mostly achieved through synthetic substances, since ambergris is so rare.
Blue whales do not produce ambergris their diet is made up almost entirely of small crustaceans called krill, which are digested much more easily.
Did the ROM collect parasites when they opened the whale?
No, the team did not gather parasites from the whale.
How long has the whale been dead?
It is likely that the whale has been dead for over a month.
Has the ROM considered crowdsourcing or other funding initiatives to further the project?
The ROM is considering a wide range of options. If you are interested in supporting the Museum, please contact Katie McMillan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416.586.5582.
Jacqueline Waters is a freelance environmental communicator and graduate of the Environmental Visual Communication program co-offered by the ROM and Fleming College.
Justine DiCesare is a video editor, videographer, and mathematics enthusiast who is a graduate of the Environmental Visual Communication program co-offered by the ROM and Fleming College.
Stacey Lee Kerr is the biodiversity storyteller and creative producer for the ROM's Centre of Discovery in Biodiversity, and coordinator of the Environmental Visual Communication program co-offered by the ROM and Fleming College.
Sam Rose Phillips is a photographer and visual communicator, and a graduate of the Environmental Visual Communication program co-offered by the ROM and Fleming College.