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One year anniversary of blue whale specimen at the Beaty Bidioversity Museum at UBC

Big Blue on display at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC. Photo: Duncan McGregor

Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at UBC, refers to Big Blue on display at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC as "the museum’s head curator."

“I think of this collection as being a library – it’s a library of life – and our librarian happens to be Big Blue,” said Trites. “She’s the one who greets people at the door. And she’s the one, I think, who’s bringing a lot of people into the museum.”

One of only four mounted blue whale skeletons in the North America, the 80-foot-long-plus, articulated skeleton hangs in the stillness of the museum’s Djavad Mowadaghian Atrium. The specimen has opened the doors to many dialogues on biodiversity. “It’s a chance for people to see how close we came to losing some species, and why in fact all species are special,” said Trites.

Trites balked when originally asked by museum architects to borrow the mounted skeleton of another whale hanging in the nearby Aquatic Ecosystems Research Lab.  “I wasn’t so keen on lending the whales that we had done because I figured you could lend, but you’d never see them back again,” said Trites.

The hunt was on for another whale. In the preliminary stages it was thought to try to obtain a fin whale, but, says Trites, “Why settle for the second-biggest animal, when you can have the biggest?”

Photo: Duncan McGregor

“You don’t happen to have an extra blue whale lying about, do you?”

Blue whale skeletons are not easy to come by. Trites' search lead him to call contacts from all over the world, but with  little luck. It wasn’t until he attended a meeting of the Committee for the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) that Trites struck-up a conversation with a colleague who happened to be a curator at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature. “I said, ‘You don’t happen to have an extra blue whale lying about, do you?’,” said Trites.

While they didn’t have a whale that he could take back to B.C. there at the museum, as luck would have it they did know where one could be found. They and the government of Prince Edward Island had one, near the community of Nail Pond, buried 20 years previous.

The body of Big Blue washed ashore on P.E.I.’s remote and blustery north-eastern coast in 1987. Shortly afterward, the government of P.E.I. and the Canadian Museum of Nature decided to preserve the whale for study by burying it for safekeeping. There she rested until the winter of 2007, when Trites and a team of three others arrived to investigate. They dug test pits to ensure that the whale was actually there, then headed back home for the winter to secure the rights to dig her up and return her to British Columbia.

In the spring on 2008 they began the dig to retrieve the skeleton. What they found beneath the ochre P.E.I. soil was more than they had bargained for. “It was still covered in blue skin, and blubber and meat. 20 years underground and it had seemed like it had barely decomposed,” said Trites.

Trites, together with the project’s master articulator, Michael deRoos, and their team deboned the carcass right there on the beach. They left the rotting remains as a feast for gulls and crabs, and loaded the whale’s bones onto a tractor trailer donated to the project by CN. After a trip of over 6000 kilometres, the whale arrived at its temporary home in Victoria’s inner harbour.

Preparing the world’s biggest animal for display

Preparation of the skeleton for display had challenges of its own – some of them more stinky than others. Whales have porous bones that are filled with oil they use as an aid to buoyancy, and also as a source of nutrition during times when food is scarce. This oil in a blue whale occurs in vast quantities, and after being buried for 20 years, the oil in this skeleton had gone rancid. “Our biggest challenge was how to get all this rancid oil out of the bones,” said Trites.  “Because the smell was so bad, nobody would ever have been able to enter the museum if they didn’t have a gasmask on.”

Photo: Duncan McGregor

According to Trites, some museums who host less well-conserved whale specimens have trouble with this. On hot, sunny days it’s not uncommon to see oil dripping from mounted whale skeletons. This was something that deRoos and Trites wished to avoid. A degreasing solution had to be found.

In specially-made tanks donated to the project by Ellice Recycle, Ltd., the team tried everything from biological enzymes to special bacteria in an attempt to rid the bones of the foul-smelling oil -- all to no avail. The solutions would not penetrate deeply enough into the bones to remove the oil. More drastic measures were needed.

These drastic measures came in the form of a hot vapour degreaser – a machine usually reserved for cleaning helicopter engines. With this machine the process went much faster. The oil was finally removed and the whale’s bones were ready to be re-articulated back into a recognizable form.

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