We Watched Gigantic Blue Whale Bones Get ‘Degreased’

It smelled really bad.
August 31, 2016, 1:00pm
Image: Author

Matt Fair isn't a delicate man, a point he made when we recently met by grabbing hold of a bit of dry flesh stuck to a vertebrae larger than his ample torso and declaring loudly, "Whale jerky!"

The bone once belonged to an endangered blue whale that washed up on Canada's Eastern shores in 2014, along with two others. That year, a pod of blue whales were crushed under ice, further reducing Canada's adult blue whale population, which is estimated to number under 250 animals, by nine. Next year, her skeleton will be hanging on the ceiling of Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), a kind of monument to the natural sciences, but for now she suffers through many indignities to get her there.

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After transporting the whale's remains from the Atlantic coast to Ontario—a task that required 18-wheelers, since blue whales are the largest animals ever to exist on Earth—Fair and his colleagues at Research Casting International in Trenton, along with folks from the ROM, placed the gigantic bones in shipping containers full of manure. For over a year, the bones slowly decomposed until there was nothing left but flesh-eating beetles and bits of whale jerky. Before the bones can go on display, there's another step: degreasing.

Image: Author

Whale bones contain a lot of grease, also known as whale oil, which was once a valuable commodity and was used as fuel to light lamps and make soap. These days, we have ways to make fuel and soap without killing any endangered animals, and so the degreasing process just gets the oil out of the bones so it doesn't drip on people while they walk underneath the skeleton or discolour the bones over time.

It also smells really bad. In fact, there's little about a whale skeleton that doesn't smell downright awful before it hits the museum, whether it's the rotting flesh or the overwhelming stench of manure once the meat has been eaten away.

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But why go through this long, stinky process at all? According to Jacqui Miller, the ROM's mammalogy technician, there's actually a lot we don't know about blue whales, and every skeleton that scientists can get their hands on adds "another data point" to a very small pool of existing specimens.

For example, Miller said, even having one more blue whale organ to study can give scientists a better idea of how to estimate the size of another blue whale, assuming the same organ can be recovered from the corpse.

Image: Author

I went to Research Casting International's warehouse last week while they were doing the degreasing to get a first-hand look at the process. The mixture of scientific holiness and utter profanity on display was almost comical: a humongous chunk of a whale spine lounging in a swimming pool that wouldn't be out of place behind a suburban bungalow (it was there to be sprayed with degreasing fluid), and a folded-over hunk of whale jowl left sitting forgotten in the sun behind the warehouse.

"Matt!" cried one ROM employee when I pointed out the hunk of meat. Fair shrugged.