Avoiding heartbreak: Sending a blue whale's heart across the Atlantic

Scared of sending a porcelain plate across the country? Try sending the world’s biggest heart across the world.

Rocky Harbour blue whale heart packed up, sent from Ontario to Germany

The heart of the blue whale that washed ashore in Trout River. It weighs more than 180 kilograms, without blood or fluids. (Stacey Kerr)

Scared of sending a porcelain plate across the country? Try sending the world's biggest heart across the world.

This November, staff at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) packed up the heart of a blue whale that washed ashore in Rocky Harbour and sent it to Germany, where it will be preserved through a process called plastination

The heart belongs to one of two whales that washed ashore in Western Newfoundland in 2014. It's been preserved in formaldehyde for the past six months, as the team prepared to send it across the Atlantic.

Mark Engstrom, interim CEO of the ROM, said shipping the heart was a massive job — literally. The heart was the size of a large freezer — about a metre and a half by a metre and a half — and weighed more than 180 kilograms, even when drained of blood and fluids.

"It's huge," said Engstrom.

"The reason why we tried to preserve it in the first place is it's kind of a mythological organ."

After plastination, the heart will go on display in life-like detail at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Packing it up

The scientists had to make sure the heart was wrapped up well enough that it wouldn't get damaged in transit — and that took a lot more than bubble wrap and a 'fragile' sticker.

A team of six people worked for eight and a half hours to package the heart so it would be ready for shipping. Everybody was clothed in full protective suits and face masks, which helped shield them from the unsavoury smell of whale and formaldehyde.

It took six people eight and a half hours to prepare and package the blue whale heart for shipping. (Stacey Kerr)

"We had to get rid of the fluid, irrigate it, then package it in such a way that it would stand no risk of drying or exposure to air so it would get mould as it was transported to Germany," said Jacqueline Miller, a technician who worked extensively on preserving and shipping the whale heart.

The heart was stored inside a huge steel tank, which some of the team members worked in, waist deep in fluids.

They rolled the large organ back and forth and slipped dumpster bags underneath it, so that a forklift could lift it out of the tank.

(Stacey Kerr)

Once the heart was out, the team rinsed it off and began the intensive task of packing it up for shipping.

Seven people plus a forklift helped wrap the heart in several layers of polyfilm and void fill — the equivalent of 12 bags of styrofoam peanuts. It was all wrapped up with four rolls of something similar to duct tape.

"Once we got it wrapped up I think we did a pretty good job," said Miller.

The tank was cleaned and padded, then a forklift dropped the heart back into the tank so it could be transported to the airport.

The heart made its transatlantic voyage via a Lufthansa cargo aircraft. Miller said this is the first time she's heard of a blue whale heart making such a journey.

The blue whale heart packed up and ready for travel. (Stacey Kerr)

Now that it's arrived in Germany, the plastination process will begin by Gunther von Hagens, a German anatomist who invented the preservation technique.

The process will take the next 16 months, and Mark said he hopes to have it on display at the ROM by summer 2017.

Paperwork the hardest part

Miller said that the hardest part about shipping the whale heart was actually the amount of paperwork she had to do. Blue whales are an endangered species, which means it required very specific import and export permits.

"We worked on paperwork for six months before sending it off," said Miller.

"It took a lot longer than actually shipping the heart did."

In the meantime, the team is still working on cleaning the skeletons of the two whales from Newfoundland.

Mark says one of the skeletons will hopefully be on display at the museum by March 2017. The other skeleton will be shipped back to Newfoundland, where it will go on display at Memorial University's new science facility in St. John's, currently under construction.

About the Author

Laura Howells

CBC News

Laura Howells is a journalist from St. John's who is now working in Toronto and Hamilton. You can reach her at laura.howells@cbc.ca.


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