Nfld. & Labrador

Digging up bones: Royal Ontario Museum moves to next stage of blue whale project

Staff from the Royal Ontario Museum have moved on to the next phase in ensuring that two blue whales killed by sea ice in this province in 2014 will have a second life as research tools.

One step closer to get massive mammal on display

The Royal Ontario Museum begins the process of removing blue whale bones from composting bins. (Royal Ontario Museum)

The Royal Ontario Museum has moved to the next phase of its plan to make sure that two blue whales killed by sea ice in this province in 2014 will have a second life as research tools. 

This week, crews started removing the massive mammal bones from a composting manure where they have been kept for two years to clean them.

"The bacterial action will help get rid of the remnants of the flesh," said Jacqueline Miller, a mammology technician at the ROM. 

Whale bones are being weighed and sorted at a research facility in Ontario. (Jacqueline Miller)

In the winter of 2014 heavy sea ice off the west coast of Newfoundland killed as many as nine of the world's largest animals.

Two of them washed up on shores in western Newfoundland, one in Rocky Harbour, the other in Trout River. 

As the carcasses of the giant sea creatures started to decompose, and with the bodies expanding from methane gas, something had to be done.

The Royal Ontario Museum stepped in and offered to clean up the mess in the name of science. 

Miller was part of the team the ROM sent to this province to cleanse the two blue whales, keeping one for itself with Memorial University claiming the other. 

Despite extensive cleaning on site back in 2014, the bones needed to be buried in large containers at Research Casting International in Trenton, Ontario to help further remove oils and blubber. 

"We're getting them out individually," Miller told CBC's On The Go. "Doing some measurements on them, including weight, and sorting them out."

Miller said it will take about a week to get the bones organized before moving on to the next phase.

"We have to continue removing the lipid because leaving a lot of fat in the bones it's going to leech out over time and if we are mounting this as real specimen we don't want that to be happening. It's going to be going into, basically, a chemical bath, a detergent bath. A green detergent, nothing that is noxious or toxic."

Two large bathtubs are being set up at the site in Ontario to make this happen, a heated bathing process that should take several months. 

The ROM has set a target date of March 2017 to have the bones of the blue whale on display in Toronto. 

Two years underground may have helped remove some blubber and oil but it still couldn't get rid of the smell. 

"A very strong aroma but a very different one from the aroma in Newfoundland," Miller said.

"This is a very strong manure smell, so it would be very much like a barn but with a fishy overtone to it."

About the Author

Jeremy Eaton is a reporter and videojournalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

with files from On The Go