Scientists at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto are hoping that some good can come from three dead North Atlantic right whales, towed to a beach on P.E.I. this summer. 

DNA samples from the whales are now in a research lab at the ROM and bones from one of the whales are being prepared to become part of the museum's collection.

'It has to have been the messiest and smelliest job I think I've ever done in my life.' - Oliver Haddrath, DNA technician at the ROM

"We want to learn as much as possible and being such an endangered animal, it's important that we actually study it," said Oliver Haddrath, DNA technician at the ROM.

"While we're not ourselves looking at it, by understanding the whales better, we'll have a better understanding of how to avoid things like ship collisions."

Right whale skeleton 3

Oliver Haddrath called it the "messiest and smelliest job" he has ever done. (Submitted by Oliver Haddrath and Jacqueline Miller)

The ROM approached Fisheries and Oceans Canada when it heard the three dead right whales were being brought to shore. 

A crew from the museum and from Research Castings International (RCI) then raced to the scene on a remote beach in western P.E.I., where the necropsies were already underway.

"Luckily when we got out there, the progress through the necropsies was extremely rapid," said Jacqueline Miller, mammalogy technician at the ROM.

"They had done a lot of the base work for us that would have taken us the first few days. It was a great stroke of luck."

Right whale skeleton 6

The process of removing the flesh is called flensing, a term from the whaling industry. (Submitted by Oliver Haddrath and Jacqueline Miller)

With the necropsies complete, the ROM and RCI teams got to work.

"It has to have been the messiest and smelliest job I think I've ever done in my life," said Haddrath, working on a whale carcass for the first time.


DEEP TROUBLE | Right whale in peril

After an unprecedented number of deaths this summer, CBC News is bringing you an in-depth look at the endangered North Atlantic right whale. This week, in a series called Deep Trouble, CBC explores the perils facing the right whales.


"Once you're out there, the smell is so overwhelming, it's everywhere," added Miller.

"It's messy, it's oily, it takes a long time to get clean. You can smell it in your hotel room the next morning."

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The crew from the Royal Ontario Museum started their work as soon as the necropsies were completed, but with a good head start thanks to the work that was already done removing flesh from the whales. (Submitted by Oliver Haddrath and Jacqueline Miller)

The crew used large knives, some of them custom made for whales, with blades a metre long. The process of removing the flesh is called flensing, a term from the whaling industry.

"The hardest part was doing the tail because there's a lot of muscle attachments to the bone because the tail has very powerful muscles and they're very strong and very hard to remove," said Haddrath.

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The crew used large knives, some of them custom made for whales, with blades a metre long. (Submitted by Oliver Haddrath and Jacqueline Miller)

Haddrath tried to collect as many tissue samples as possible, including any internal organs that hadn't yet started to decompose.

"Initially I wanted to take a sample from the brain but the brain had already turned to more or less into a soup because of decay so there was no point in sampling that," said Haddrath. 

"We're also interested in vision in the whale so we also requested … that we get one of the eyes of the right whale so that we can actually examine further."

The crew had also hoped to collect baleen and the heart but the whales had already decomposed too badly.

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DNA technician Oliver Haddrath kneels beside some whale remains. Unfortunately some tissue was too decomposed to be viable for testing. (Submitted by Oliver Haddrath and Jacqueline Miller)

The DNA 'looks very good'

The samples are now in the museum's ultra cold freezers.

"We've done a DNA extraction on one of the samples, just to see how viable the DNA is and it looks very good," said Haddrath.

Right whale skeleton tissue samples

Oliver Haddrath has done a DNA extraction on one of the tissue samples, just to see how viable the DNA is and it looked very good.

The Royal Ontario Museum opened a new exhibit in the spring of 2017 centred around a blue whale, also an endangered species. 

The skeleton of that whale came from a similar tragic event, when 9 whales were trapped in ice in Newfoundland and Labrador in the winter of 2014.

"We're actively pursuing doing the genome on the blue whale," said Haddrath.

"Having a close relative of the blue whale, like the right whale, is very useful for actually studying it."

Blue whale

The right whale skeleton will become part of the collection at the Royal Ontario Museum, joining this blue whale skeleton. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Bones to be buried — for a while

The bones, meanwhile, are being processed by Research Castings International at their facility in Trenton, Ontario, where the blue whale skeleton was also prepared.

"The bones are sitting in compost in a container," said Peter May, president of RCI.

"We put down a layer of compost, a layer of bones, a layer of compost, a layer of bones, and they'll sit there probably for the next two to three months."

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Once the flesh was removed the bones were organized for shipping. (Submitted by Oliver Haddrath and Jacqueline Miller)

Then the bones will need to be de-greased, in tanks of water and detergent.

"The one thing we don't want is once the skeleton is mounted is to have the oil drop on visitors at the museum," said May.

RCI has prepared bones for more than ten whales, but May was struck by the circumstances that brought the right whale skeleton to his facility.

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The bones were loaded into a container to be taken to Research Castings International in Trenton, Ontario. (Submitted by Oliver Haddrath and Jacqueline Miller)

"We enjoy going out to the field to collect the animals, but there's some sadness at the same time, here you are collecting dead animals, it's not a joyous event," said May. 

"Here we are putting a live mammal skeleton on display, much as we put a dinosaur skeleton on display, it's already gone extinct and these animals are going that way now." 

Mature, large male; 'Beautifully intact'

Once it is fully processed, the right whale skeleton will become part of the collection at the Royal Ontario Museum.

"It was a very large male, actually quite mature in terms of age," said Miller. 

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It took a full week for the team to prepare the bones to be transported to Ontario. (Submitted by Oliver Haddrath and Jacqueline Miller)

"We know that it was at least 30 years old, there's been some tracking information on it and it's believed to have fathered at least one calf."

Miller says there was evidence of bruising in the soft tissue that suggests the whale may have died from blunt trauma.

"The skeleton itself is beautifully intact, it's quite wonderful how intact it was," she said. 

"It's going to make a really awesome anatomical specimen when it's finally cleaned and processed."

That could take more than a year.

blue whale composting

The blue whales bones were buried in specialized containers at RCI for more than a year. The right whale bones are also now sitting in compost and could be ready in late fall. (CBC)

"We have a lot of patience, it's not going to go away," said Miller.

"And it's for posterity, it's meant to be an asset for the museum for future generations."

Still, both scientists are saddened that the skeleton comes as a result of a deadly summer for the endangered species.

"This is a very tragic event that so many have died," said Haddrath. 

"But the only good that can come out of it is we were able to get these tissues, to be able to study its DNA, so hopefully it will provide some insights." 

How an unprecedented number of deaths put the endangered North Atlantic right whale's future in peril2:57