SAMBRO, NS: The first thing that strikes you is the smell.
It is an unlikely fishy odor, sometimes light and occasionally cloying.
It is a smell that you should get used to, it will stay with you. It will infiltrate your clothes, your hair, your skin, and most inconveniently, your memories. So much so that later, freshly scrubbed, looking at your photographs, that smell will reappear to haunt your nostrils.
The source of that smell is incongruously magnificent.
Ahead, taken off the ocean shore, are the remains of a blue whale; as a species, the largest creatures ever known on this planet. The largest of this endangered species can grow to 33 meters and weigh up to 190 tons, slightly shorter than the space shuttle and the weight of eight school buses.
This particular blue whale was more modest: a newly matured female, probably 10-15 years old, 25 meters long, and probably weighing around 60 tons.
It is believed to have washed ashore during the night of September 8 when a storm hit the east coast of Nova Scotia and eventually came to rest on a nude beach about 30 miles south of Halifax.
Now she’s surrounded by a swarm of mosquito-wielding, knife-wielding biologists and volunteers in the process of answering the burning question: What do you do when 60 tons of whales turn up dead on one of your beaches?
If you are Danielle Pinder, you will probably be the first to enter the scene.
She is a response coordinator for the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), a non-profit conservation organization that is often the first response to reports of endangered marine mammals in the Maritime Islands. Those incidents can involve animals entangled in nets or injured or stranded on beaches, perhaps still alive and sometimes, as in this case, dead.
Over the years, this is the third blue whale carcass that Pinder has responded to; never seen one alive. And while beached blue whales are relatively rare, sadly, the northern right whale, also endangered, is a more common victim. In 2015, 2017 and 2019, Pinder recalls, there were several whale carcasses on the maritime shores. And that can take a toll on MARS staff and volunteers.
“Whenever we receive the call, our heart immediately sinks,” he says.
“It’s really annoying to hear that at first. And then you switch to work mode and you say, ‘Okay, what can we do to find out what happened to him?’
“And then after everything is done, you relax a little bit. And it hits you again, especially for some of our MARS folks. They have been doing this for years. And sometimes in the summer when you’re in your fifth or sixth one of these for right whales in particular, it’s mentally devastating and it’s very difficult to process all of that. “
In ideal cases, insofar as dead whales can be considered ideal, MARS can perform a necropsy. Your team, including your vets, will carefully open the carcass, take samples for investigators, and check for injuries, signs of bleeding or hemorrhage, signs of disease, or parasites, in the hope that they can determine the cause of death along the way.
In this case, with the storm hitting the whale carcass against the rocks, the damage was extensive enough that a necropsy was meaningless. The options at that point are to tow the corpse out to sea to let the ocean and its scavengers take care of it, or to preserve the skeleton for museums and research.
Since a blue whale skeleton is a rare find, MARS works with other organizations, the province’s Department of Natural Resources, federal DFO, and Research and Casting International, to remove the skeleton and dispose of the meat.
The first problem with this carcass, said Jason MacIntosh, area manager for the province’s Natural Resources department, was that the whale landed on a remote beach, where heavy machinery couldn’t access it without disturbing a fragile ecosystem.
The solution was to tow the whale off the nude beach and land it further down the coast, where a nearby road could provide access to an excavator, which pulled the carcass off the beach as far as it could be processed.
That effort was not without its risks, MacIntosh explains.
“We were very concerned about the whale breaking,” he said. “But one of the biologists who was on site determined that the whale was still structurally healthy. In fact, they felt very confident that if we tied it by the tail, it wouldn’t break. “
Once the corpse is relocated, the aforementioned swarm of biologists and volunteers goes to work. Using only knives (power tools are too dangerous and fire quickly), they begin to separate the meat from the bone.
It’s hard, sweaty work; Each of them is covered from toe to elbow with whale scraps, and the meat is tough enough that the knives they use only last 10-15 minutes before they need to be sharpened again.
But the fruits of his labor emerge: a set of vertebrae here, part of the jaw there, some ribs there. As each bone is exposed, a bulldozer lifts piles of meat from the carcass and stacks it to the side, then loads it onto a dump truck and takes it to a burial site.
Once separated and cleaned as much as possible, the bones fall into the hands of Trenton, Ontario-based Research Casting International, whose specialty is putting together exhibits for museums around the world. They are responsible for the three skeletons installed at ROM this summer, and the whale skeleton at Memorial University in Newfoundland, among others.
They have a museum interested in this particular blue whale skeleton, says general manager Matt Fair, but he still can’t say which one.
First, however, those bones must be cleaned, and the way to do this is to bury them in a compost of manure and sawdust, which includes a species of dermestid beetle, in an oxygen-rich environment. There, over the course of a year, the remaining meat is removed.
Then there is a pressure wash and a degreaser to try and remove the remaining oils from the bones. After a final wash, the skeleton is ready to be shipped to its new home.
This process is old for Fair: this is the thirteenth whale he has collected and his fourth blue whale. But this one came with something I hadn’t seen before.
Before the cleaning of the corpse began, he and the other workers joined a ceremony with Angela Swan of the Mi’kmaq First Nation.
“They made a spot around the whale, and that was to send the spirit of the whale back to the Creator, ”he said.
“It was a moving ceremony and at the end, an eagle flew up and then landed. And then a second eagle came and flew over the carcass, and then both eagles picked up, flew one more time, and left.
“They feel that it was part of the departure of the spirit and the eagle taking it to the Creator.
“That it’s something that I think is the most surprising thing about this particular job. “
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