What does it take to move a decomposing whale carcass? Glute Strength and Vicks VapoRub.

Removing the dead whale was a grueling task that involved a tugboat, excavator, knives, hip boots, goggles, and Vicks VapoRub (Ted Pritchard / CP)

Removing the dead whale was a grueling task that involved a tugboat, excavator, knives, hip boots, goggles, and Vicks VapoRub (Ted Pritchard / CP)

At first glance, it appeared to be a large metal object floating in the Atlantic, south of Halifax Harbor, a potential boating hazard that a caller reported to the Coast Guard just before 9 p.m. on Sept. 8.

But when Coast Guard icebreaker Sir William Alexander, who had been patrolling nearby waters, approached the steamer to check it out, the crew quickly identified it as a dead blue whale, its flipped body forming a gigantic striated balloon sticking out of the water. .

Around this time, Hurricane Larry was heading toward the Canadian Atlantic, with winds of nearly 80 miles per hour and pushing large swells. Eventually, the storm washed the whale against the rocky shoreline of a popular provincial park, and for hours the swell hit its 25-meter-long body, which was now deflated and gelatinous, like a mattress of water.

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The news of the arrival of the dead cetacean spread quickly. People flocked to Crystal Crescent Beach Provincial Park to see the largest creature on the planet up close and personal.

Except the meat had been decomposing for a while. You could smell it from the parking lot: a pungent odor that scorched the cilia and made onlookers choke or hold their noses. Something had to be done.

The task of removal fell to park officials, who hatched a plan with the help of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS), a non-profit organization that responds to dead or distressed animals in the provinces. maritime. The society, which had disassembled a blue whale in 2017 near Liverpool, NS, also agreed to extract the creature’s bones for a company that prepares animal skeletons for museums.

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It was impossible to get a land vehicle up to the steep stretch of coast where the whale had appeared. The only option was to tow the whale off the rocks.

It was high tide around noon on September 14 when a tugboat crew delivered a towing rope capable of pulling 89,000 kg to provincial personnel in a Boston Whaler rocking in the waves just off the park. The Whaler’s crew threw the tow rope to colleagues waiting on the rocks, who, in turn, tied a smaller rope around the whale’s fins and connected it to the tow line with a heavy steel shackle. . “Good to shoot!” He radioed a staff member to the tugboat crew, and with a jerk, the whale slid off the rocks and into the water. Volunteers and staff clapped and high-fives.

From there, the body was towed to the white sands of the public beach, about a kilometer away. A bulldozer dragged him to the beach and up an old access road.

The next morning, the gruesome work of elimination began. The whale, a female, was too decomposed to perform a necropsy to determine the cause of death. But it’s a safe bet that he didn’t die of natural causes. He was young, only approaching the age of maturity (between five and 15 years). And the biggest threats to blue whales, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are fishing gear entanglements, ocean noise and boat crashes.

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Warren Pinder, a MARS volunteer, wore a swimsuit, a suit made of protective Tyvek material, fishing boots, gloves, and goggles. When he cut the whale, the liquid splashed back. “The general rule of thumb is ‘Keep your mouth shut,'” says Pinder.

A 10-person crew began on the ground around the whale’s tail, cutting mattress-sized chunks of blubber with small machetes and knives. The excavator also excavated, depositing the slabs and organic debris on the back of a dump truck. The whale’s tendons and muscles were so tough that cutter knife blades dull every 10 to 15 minutes. A team of sharpeners worked all day.

The team also took samples of the whale’s blue-gray skin, blubber and baleen, as well as an eyeball the size of a large grapefruit, to research and learn more about the endangered species.

It was a slippery, smelly job done in the midst of a swarm of mosquitoes and flies. Sometimes a cutter would jam a foot, leg, or even lower body. Colleagues would put away their knives and help. “It was like pulling someone out of quicksand,” says Pinder.

(Courtesy of Peter Steeper / MARS)

(Courtesy of Peter Steeper / MARS)

Ripping out the whale’s skull, which was longer than a pickup truck, and extracting the rib bones were among the most strenuous tasks. The heart, which weighed about the same as a dairy cow’s, was so large that crew members had to climb it to begin cutting it. “Just trying to maneuver in the whale’s mud is a full-body exercise,” says Pinder, who worked on the whale for 20 hours over two days. “Your buttocks hurt. Your quads are sore, your shoulders and even your hand that is trying to grab the knife. “

As the crew advanced, the smells grew stronger. Some workers tried to block them by smearing drops of Vicks VapoRub under their noses. Dump trucks carried more than eight loads of waste to an undisclosed graveyard, leaving only the bones inside two cream-colored shipping containers.

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Over the next two years, Research Casting International, a company that creates cast skeletons for public display, will coat the bones in cow dung so bacteria can remove them and then degreases them with detergents. This specialized work is done at the company’s hangar-like facilities in Trenton, Ontario, 1,600 km from the waters where the whale once dove, sailed and chatted with its companions. Owner Peter May, whose firm has prepared blue whale skeletons for the British Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum and Memorial University, predicts that the Nova Scotia whale “will make a museum proud one day.” But he mourns the death of a magnificent creature: “It is sad,” he says. “It is always sad.”

This article appears in print in the December 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the title “Moving Day”. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.


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