Nfld. & Labrador

Empathy and awe: ROM ready to show Trout River blue whale to the world

Three years after sitting with a knife in a pile of blue whale guts, Mark Engstrom is ready to unveil the creature to the world.

With a head like a bus, and a heart like a car, massive whale skeleton fills the room

Mark Engstrom spent five days sitting amid the guts of a blue whale that died on Newfoundland's west coast in 2014. Now, the whale's bones are ready to be unveiled at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Three years after sitting with a knife in a pile of whale guts, Mark Engstrom is ready to unveil the reconstructed creature to the world.

The blue whale's bones have been cleaned, degreased, studied and hung at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, for an exhibit set to open on Saturday.

The whale came ashore in Trout River, on Newfoundland's west coast, one of nine blue whales that died in thick sea ice in the winter of 2014.

"I kind of lost track in my head a little bit of how big it was," said Engstrom, the ROM's senior curator and deputy director of collections and research. 

"You're dismembering it bone by bone, and you see all the bones in a pile … I got worried when we put it up that it actually wouldn't seem so big."

But that's not the case.

The whale's skeleton stretches across the room, its massive head leading the way and its mouth fixed shut. Rather than drill through the skeleton and string the bones together, each bone was hung individually to preserve the animal for research.

"The skull is immense," Engstrom said, standing near the head. "[It] takes up 20 per cent of the length of the whole animal, or more."

A blue whale's cranium can weigh upward of four tonnes, with its jawbone weighing another tonne. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

A blue whale's jaw alone can weigh one tonne, while the cranium can be four tonnes.

And then there's the heart.

Jacqueline Miller, a mammalogy technician with the museum, had heard about a blue whale's heart — how it's the size of a car, or you could swim in its blood vessels.

The museum has a worldwide first — a well-preserved blue whale heart — from another whale that washed up in Rocky Harbour, just north of Trout River.

Jacqueline Miller, Robert Henry and Paul Nader working on the 180-kilogram heart of the blue whale. Crews had to use formaldehyde to prevent the tissue from decomposing before the preservation work began. (Samantha Phillips, ROM Biodiversity)

As it turns out, the blood vessels may not be large enough to swim in, but the 180-kilogram heart is about the size of a Smart Car, which it is now displayed alongside.

"Having a situation where the heart was actually not decayed, where it was still intact, was very, very exciting," Miller said.

It raises questions for research about just how big a creature can get before its heart refuses to keep up with its body, she said.

The blue whale's preserved heart is on display next to a small car to give an idea of its size. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

"What is the absolute upper limit of cardiovascular physiology?" Miller pondered. "How big can you get before you are too big to actually function properly?"

While the whale deaths in Newfoundland were a massive blow to the species, which has an estimated population of 250 in the North Atlantic, Miller hopes the exhibit will put the tragedy into perspective, leaving viewers in awe.

"I'm keen to see if we've done our purpose of raising awareness, of arousing some empathy for the situation with our great whales in the Atlantic waters."

With files from Jeremy Eaton