Nova Scotia

Need to get rid of a whale corpse? Try composting it

"He loves a challenge, so when I said, 'Hey Gordon, let's compost a whale,' he said, 'Yeah, let's do that.'"

Dalhousie University scientists create natural recipe that reduces a whale to bones

The whale composters take a break from solving 'the world's biggest jigsaw puzzle' Thursday. (CBC)

If you need to dispose of a gigantic whale corpse, two Dalhousie University professors can tell you just what to do.

Dalhousie marine biologist Chris Harvey-Clark wondered how he'd get the flesh off a 12-metre right whale and a 20-metre blue whale.

"I knew nothing whatsoever about large-scale preparation of skeletons," he says.

He called Gordon Price, who's with the well-named Innovative Waste Management Research Program at the university's department of engineering.

"He loves a challenge, so when I said, 'Hey Gordon, let's compost a whale,' he said, 'Yeah, let's do that,'" Harvey-Clark says.

The marine biologist kindly offered to hack the flesh off the whales to get down to the bone. Price wasn't having it. "He said that's no fun — let's do the whole thing."

They created a special recipe of sawdust, manure, shavings and animal bedding and buried a dead whale in it. 

"These materials are alive with a myriad of micro-organisms that are just looking for food. The oils on the surface of these bones are an easily available food source. They do all of the hard work," Price says.

That, plus the heat the compost generated, did the job. After 45 days, the disinterred whale was nothing but "well-done bones."

The sweet smell of composted whale

They then buried the blue whale and the right whale last summer in Bible Hill, N.S., near Dalhousie's agricultural college.

Now, with the help of high school and university students, they're digging them up and putting the bones back in order. "The students love this," Harvey-Clark says. "It sort of smells like a barnyard."

Price describes the smell of composted whale corpse as "sweet." Both men admit they might be "nose-dead" at this point in their research. 

Their goal is to find a good way to turn a rotting whale corpse into a museum skeleton display.

"The bones are beautiful objects," Harvey-Clark says.

Price says the composting could also be used in parts of Atlantic Canada where whales wash up dead. It could quickly get rid of the stinking flesh, and could leave communities with an educational display.

They've been using a drone to capture the scene and have hopes to turn it into a TV show.

"It's the world's biggest jig-saw puzzle," Harvey-Clark says.

The composted whales could end up displayed at Dalhousie University or at a Department of Fisheries and Oceans site.

with files from Amy Smith and Bob Murphy

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