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The biggest dig: Unearthing leviathan in Canada

Rare whale skeleton to go on display

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Colin Nickerson
Globe Correspondent / May 17, 2008

NAIL POND, Prince Edward Island - In Canada's tiniest province, scientists are undertaking what may be history's largest exhumation of a single creature.

It's a whale of a tale, and a ripe one, too.

The reek from the excavation of a blue whale is strong enough to churn the stomach and bring tears streaming. It's been nearly 21 years since the immense creature washed ashore and was buried on an isolated strand of red sand near the island's northwest tip.

"We're uncovering a beast bigger than any dinosaur," said Andrew Trites, biologist and leader of the effort to recover the full skeleton of the nearly forgotten cetacean and reassemble it at a new museum at the University of British Columbia, on the country's opposite shore.

"It's the length of two city buses, it held a heart the size of a Volkswagen, and a tongue about the size of an elephant," he said.

In late 2009, if all goes as scheduled, the skeleton will be suspended in a glass atrium at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver. It will be one of a handful of complete blue whale skeletons anywhere. Blue whales are the biggest animals on earth - and among the rarest, with only a few thousand swimming the oceans.

The body snatchers had hoped for a cleaner corpse.

"We'd expected to find bare bones," Trites said.

Instead, the team found that the whale's namesake blue flesh had basically mummified, while gigantic bands of solidified blubber remain on the skeleton like a hard-rubber shroud.

"But it's the smell of the rancid oil permeating the bones that really gets your attention," Trites said in an interview Thursday afternoon at the wind-blasted dig site. "It's pretty powerful."

The bizarre unburial uses the techniques of heavy earth moving - and intricate autopsy. In a month or so, after a transcontinental journey by truck and train, the bones will be dumped into gigantic enzyme bath vats, built specially for the purpose in British Columbia, where bacteria will be employed to rid the bones of the noxious oil.

"Eventually, we expect to reassemble a beautiful skeleton that will allow people to ponder and admire this most marvelous animal," said Michael deRoos, a specialist in piecing together the bones of sea creatures who has worked on killer whales, fin whales, and Stellar sea lions; but never a colossus like this.

"It's the project of a lifetime," he said.

Meanwhile, the 40 or so biologists, veterinary pathologists, skeleton "articulators," equipment operators, and others at the exhumation site smear their nostrils with Vicks VapoRub against the stench, and don rubber galoshes to forge through the slurry of whale oil and muck. Their widening trench contains a skeleton thought to measure 82 feet, roughly as tall as an eight-story building.

Three people are employed full time as grinders, just to keep knives sharpened - the near-solid blubber can dull a keen blade in minutes.

After four days of intensive labor, gray-hued vertebrae at the tail of the cadaver had been cleared and marked.

Now the workers are digging relentlessly, if cautiously, toward the skull of the female leviathan. Burial records are skimpy and contradictory.

To locate the whale, exhumers used a hand-drawn map sketched by a local wildlife conservation officer back when the animal came to its unhappy end in 1987 - washed ashore during a November gale. It took four bulldozers and a farm tractor to haul the carcass from the surf's edge to a hastily dug pit above the tide line.

The burial was partly a sanitary measure. But the operation was funded by the Ottawa-based Canadian Museum of Nature, which had a notion of eventually recovering the bones. The institution lacked proper display space, and the idea faded. Then came the British Columbians and island colleagues, stalking old whispers of a buried blue whale.

"We are unearthing a national treasure, really," said Pierre-Yves Daoust, professor of wildlife pathology at the University of Prince Edward Island's Atlantic Veterinary College, who will oversee the surgical task of separating each individual bone from its skein of muscle, tendon, and gristle when the skeleton is fully uncovered.

The crash of waves this week was drowned by the diesel roar from a pair of yellow Caterpillar excavators whose steel teeth carved away layers of the island's distinctive red sand with surprising delicacy.

Closer work was being done by researchers and university student volunteers wielding shovels, garden trowels, and razor-sharp dissection blades. A giant chainsaw of the sort used by loggers to fell soaring redwoods was flown in from British Columbia in case some joints refuse to yield to butcher knives and surgical saws.

"It takes a whole lot of slicing and dicing," said Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia. "There's not much precedent for exhuming whales."

Only four complete blue whale skeletons exist in North America, including a 66-foot specimen at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The Massachusetts display derives from a whale killed in a 1998 collision with a ship.

The Canadian team hopes to extract nearly 200 intact major bones and hundreds of fragments. Lots of smaller bones have been crunched by the sheer weight of a beast that has been settling onto itself. The researchers are scouring the sand for every shard. Lost bones will be replaced by models cast from synthetic material; but researchers expect they will recover everything from the finger-sized bones at the tips of the flippers up to the monstrous skull.

By the end of next week, researchers expect the big blue to be fully exhumed, with its skeleton separated into individual bones and loaded, gingerly, into a truck bound for Moncton, New Brunswick, the nearest railhead.

"We estimate the bones, cleaned of soft tissue, will weigh 12 tons or so," said deRoos. "Forty percent of that [weight] is rancid oil saturating the bones. And that smelly stuff will have to be removed if we want museum visitors to come within a mile of the centerpiece exhibit."

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