Moby Dig: Whale being exhumed in P.E.I.

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By Eric McCarthy

FOR THE SOU’WESTER

Friday, MAY 16 marked a dramatic ending to the school year for 15 first-year students in Holland College’s Wildlife Conservation Technician Program.

Instead of being holed up in a classroom, they were in Norway, on P.E.I.’s western shore, helping to exhume a whale. “It’s a good way to finish the year,” acknowledged Karalee McAskill.

She was in close proximity to the 26-metre creature but she was doing her best to protect her nostrils from its assault. “I don’t want to smell it,” she said, in explaining the surgical gloves tied together to cover her nose.

Another first-year student, Connor Poirier, described the whale as “raunchy” but added, “I expected it would be worse.”

Jamie MacWilliams, a heavy equipment operator with Northern Entreprises, said the smell isn’t as bad now as it was when they did an inspection last December. The air was cold, he said, and the stench just steamed out of the ground.

Participating in this week’s dig was optional, said Poirier, who admitted it provided “lots of really good hands-on experience.” “It’s a nice end to the year,” said Emily Swim, relaxing after her stint in the trench.

Staff and students from the Atlantic Veterinary College assisted the lead team from the University of British Columbia in removing clay and tissue from around the whale’s skeleton. Bones were labeled as they were removed. “This will be the only chance to have this sort of experience,” said AVC wildlife technician Darlene Weeks as she took a break from peeling away whale flesh to peel off a layer of clothing. “It’s the largest animal in the world, and to actually help dig it up...” she said, stopping to reflect on the experience.

Fanny Marron, a pathology student from Mexico City working on a project at AVC, is enjoying the unique opportunity. She spent the morning cutting away flesh to expose whalebones and her afternoon was busy sharpening knives for her fellow carvers. The cutting was her favourite part. “It’s a life experience,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how cold it could be or how smelly. “It’s like, the more you dig in, the more you are discovering these smelly things, without shape, that you know that it is actually a whale, and it’s very, very exciting.”

The UBC team is hoping to complete the collection of bones by Monday. The dig is attracting the curious.

BLUE WHALE LEARNING CURVE JUST STARTING

There will be lots of learning opportunities while the carcass of a blue whale is being exhumed and its bones collected, suggests Dr. Andrew Trites.

He is director of the marine mammal research unit at the Fisheries Centre, part of the College for Interdisciplinary Studies and an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s biodiversity research centre in the faculty of science.

Trites is leading the 10-member UBC team sent to P.E.I. this week to collect the bones of a 26-metre blue whale. “There will be a number of students on-site who will get a first-hand look at disarticulating a whale,” he said.

He anticipated area high school students will stop by to observe the progress.

UPEI and Holland College will be supplying 30 students and staff to assist with the project.

There’s also bound to be a learning curve for the team leaders, too. They still don’t know whether the whale skeleton is salvageable. “There’s a mixture of excitement and anxiety as I wonder if it is all there and in perfect shape,” said Trites. “In all reality, it won’t be until the weekend that we know.”

Trites has previously salvaged the skeletons of a killer whale, a minke whale, and two Steller sea lions, which are on display at UBC’s Aquatic Ecosystem Research Laboratory.

Unearthing and salvaging the bones is a major undertaking, Trite admits. “I think you have to be half-crazy to try this,” he joked. “We’re making sure we have all the right people for the job,” he said. They include carpenters, knife-sharpeners, pathologists and machinery operators. He is thrilled to have Kendal Gallant, owner of Northern Entreprises involved in the project. It was Gallant’s late father who buried the whale. “It’s so neat to see Kendal finishing his Dad’s work,” he commented.

The process from digging up the whale to having its skeleton ready to be put on display, will cost approximately $600,000. The glass atrium being constructed to house the display, Trites said, will cost close to $3 million to build. “It’s not a trivial undertaking,” he stressed.

In all his years of marine research, Trites said he has never seen a blue whale alive.

There are only 20 blue whale skeletons on display around the world. The P.E.I. whale will become the fourth largest on display. (Eric McCarthy is a journalist with Transcontinental Media’s Journal Pioneer, which is a contributor to the Sou’Wester.)

Organizations: Holland College, Atlantic Veterinary College, College for Interdisciplinary Studies University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre Aquatic Ecosystem Research Laboratory Transcontinental Media Journal Pioneer

Geographic location: P.E.I., Norway, Mexico City

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