May 8, 2014 9:00 pm

WATCH: Preparing Newfoundland’s dead blue whales for a big move

Watch above: How big a task will it be to get a dead blue whale ready to move to Ontario? Ross Lord explains.

WOODY POINT, N.L. – It’s a safe bet fishermen in Trout River, N.L. have never netted anything quite the size of the blue whale they helped haul away this week.

About three weeks after the 25-metre carcass washed ashore, after having been crushed to death in ice off Newfoundland’s west coast in March, the dead blue whale has been removed from the tiny community.

It’s one of two dead blue whales the Royal Ontario Museum, after reaching an agreement with the federal Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), has taken ownership of and will eventually make available to the research community.

READ MORE: Newfoundland’s smelly blue whale remains heading to Ontario

The whale was towed from Trout River to another community, Woody Point, where a crew from the ROM will disassemble it, prepare it for transport and load the skeleton into a container to be transported to Ontario.


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Mark Engstrom, the ROM’s deputy director for collections and research, said he’s been trying to collect cetaceans — large sea mammals including whales, dolphins and porpoises –from Canada’s eastern seaboard.

He said comprehensive collection of cetaceans doesn’t really exist in any museum.

“It’s so opportunistic to actually get the whales, it’s very expensive to go and salvage them… . Once you get them back, you have to clean them and you have to have a place to put [them],” he explained.

READ MORE: Newfoundland town’s dead sperm whale auction pulled from eBay

“I can put a lot of mice in the space that it takes for a blue whale,” he added.

But, he said it will take two to three years to completely clean the skeletons and get all of the oil out of the bones so they can be put into the ROMs research collections.

Engstrom added he’s already getting requests for DNA samples from researchers across the country.

“This is an exciting thing to do, to work on a blue whale, [but] at the same time it’s tragic,” he said.

The two whales were among nine that were crushed to death sometime in March after strong winds blew back ice into an open channel where the whales were believed to have been feeding.

The north Atlantic blue whale is an endangered species, and there’s only estimated to be fewer than 250 adults in the northwest Atlantic.

Over the long term, the museum would like to put the skeletons on display for the public to view — something that will take a great deal of money to do.

How do you get the world’s largest mammals ready for a move?

The plan now is for Engstrom and his crew to take tissue samples for an autopsy, then begin de-fleshing the whale — removing the blubber, skeletal muscle and its guts.

The blubber and other leftover viscera will be carted to a nearby landfill to be buried.

After that staff and contractors will take apart the skeleton, separate the vertebrae and pack up the pieces. He said it will take about a week to complete all of that, but some of that work began Thursday when the blue whale was pulled ashore in Woody Point.

It took three attempts for a backhoe to pull the carcass, believed to weigh between 60 to 80 tonnes, up onto land.

BELOW: Watch the remains of a dead blue whale being towed ashore in Woody Point, N.L.

They’ll have to go through the whole process twice: The other whale is in Rocky Harbour, across Bonne Bay from Woody point.

After work on the first corpse is complete, in about five days, Engstrom and his crew will determine whether they’ll relocate another the Rocky Harbour blue whale carcass to Woody Point for it to be diassembled.

Not an ideal solution for everyone

Engstrom and his crew had to convince Woody Point’s town council to agree to the plan. Town officials were a bit reluctant.

“The contractors said there’s very limited smell, but that’s to be decided,” councillor Fred MacLean told Global News.

But the town was promised they won’t be burdened.

But, Woody Point residents were at the shoreline with cameras in tow to see the remains brought ashore.

“I think it’s a tragedy. It makes me want to cry. But, I think it’s wonderful that people’s knowledge of whales will be enhanced by this,” Woody Point resident Maggie Purchase told Global News.

The ROMs plans for the whales may be a relief for the communities that would have been responsible for removing the carcasses or letting them decompose naturally, but some people in Trout River feel they’ve been short changed.

READ MORE: Smell of dead blue whale worsens as Newfoundland town awaits answers (Apr. 30)

Restaurant owner Jenny Parsons told Global News she would like the community to get something other than a short-lived fury of curious onlookers.

She formed a committee to lobby for some of the remains to be put on display locally.

“If we had something longstanding, like a blue whale exhibit here on the waterfront where this beast landed, then that could sustain this community for a long time to come,” Parsons said.

But, Trout River’s town council approved of the plan for the ROM to remove the huge carcass, which for more than a week was so bloated with gas that people feared it might explode.

It slowly deflated as DFO researcher Dr. Jack Lawson told Global News, in a previous interview, it most likely would.

With a file from The Canadian Press

© Shaw Media, 2014

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