Heart of blue whale beached in Rocky Harbour being dissected, preserved

Experts at the Royal Ontario Museum are dissecting a blue whale that washed up last year in western Newfoundland, with a plan to put it on public view in Toronto.

Enormous heart, to be put on display by 2017 in Toronto, turns out to be smaller than a VW Beetle

Experts at the Royal Ontario Museum are dissecting a blue whale that washed up last year on a western Newfoundland beach, with a plan to preserve the animal's heart to eventually put on display.

The whale, which beached in Rocky Harbour in Gros Morne National Park, was one of two blue whales that washed ashore in the area last summer.

Another was beached in Trout River, and the ROM in Toronto has plans to display its full skeleton along with the Rocky Harbour whale's heart.

It's the first time a blue whale heart has ever been preserved, and Mark Engstrom, interim director and CEO at the ROM, said there is a lot of curiosity surrounding it.

"During some field work, I was continually asked how big a blue whale's heart is," he told CBC Radio's Corner Brook Morning Show.

"So what we decided to do with the Rocky Harbour whale was to dissect the heart, and to preserve it and be able to show it, so that when people ask how big a blue whale heart is, we can point to it."

Closer to the heart

Getting the 180-kilogram heart out of the whale and ready for presentation was no easy task, and required thousands of dollars of equipment and materials. 
The heart, which is slightly smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle, is five feet across, four feet high a three feet deep. (Samantha Phillips, ROM Biodiversity.)

First, the team had to chill the heart and transport it to Ontario, where it was put in a freezer. The team then thawed out the large organ, cleaned and flushed it, and it is now working to preserve it in formaldehyde to prevent it from decomposing.

But the shape of the heart actually changed during the process. 

"We froze it in a freezer for several months, and of course it became square," said Engstrom.

Then the team had to build a large tank, sever all of the vessels of the heart, trim it, plug the vessels and inflate the organ with liquid to get rid of the square shape.

The process involved six 189-litre drums of formaldehyde, worth over $6,000.

The final step will be to inject the heart full of silicone to harden the heart into its natural form.

"We'll have a whale heart which will be largely made from silicone once we are all done, but it will be an exact rendition of the heart itself," said Engstrom.

The team had to use six 50-gallon drums of formaldehyde, worth about $6,000, to preserve the heart. (Samantha Phillips, ROM Biodiversity)

While not exactly the cleanest work, Engstrom said it has been an educational undertaking for the team at the museum.

"We're learning about the anatomy of a blue whale, and we're learning ourselves how big a blue whale heart actually is and we're learning about the anatomical structures of the heart," he said.

"It's interesting because the blue whale like some other whales has a symmetrical heart, unlike the asymmetrical heart that we have."

The Royal Ontario Museum hopes to have the blue whale heart fully preserved and ready for display by the summer of 2017. (Samantha Phillips, ROM Biodiversity)

The plan is to eventually put the heart on display, hopefully as part of an exhibit showcasing the difference in size between different mammals. The team hopes to present the exhibit in 2017, just in time for Canada's 150th anniversary.

Finally, Engstrom says they have been able to dispel a common belief that a blue whale heart is as big as a Volkswagen Beetle.

"Like everything else about the blue whale, it's the largest heart going, it's pretty amazing," he said.

"It's big, but it's smaller than people have suggested — not quite as big as a Volkswagen."