12 May 2017

Surgical examination of blue whale gruelling, exhausting, and to some, disgusting work


EAST BERLIN - For the average observer, it was a disgusting sight.

For the team of scientists and students, covered in blood and guts, who were methodically slicing the flesh off a dead blue whale carcass in East Berlin, it was an experience of a lifetime.

The whale carcass, which is believed to have floated from Newfoundland, gave them an opportunity to see up close and personal what many scientists never see – the organs and bones of an endangered species.

The whale was about 20 meters in length. Scientists expected to spend two days cutting it up.

Andrew Reid, with the Marine Animal Response Society, said in an interview from the site of the necropsy that even if officials couldn’t find a cause of death, they all considered it an extremely rare learning experience, although not a pretty one.

“It’s always a pretty gruelling, exhausting task,” he says. “It’s a big animal and it’s pretty horrible work as well, but we’re hoping to learn as much as we can.”

Oddly, although the whale had been dead for at least two months, there was very little odour as workers methodically used knives and cutting tools to carve up the whale’s flesh. Flies emerged on the carcass as workers hauled large of chunks of flesh into the bucket of an excavator, which dumped it into a large truck to be buried at a landfill later.

“It is important that we do this,” says Reid.

The Marine Animal Response Society, a non-profit group based in Halifax, was on scene, along with Dr. Pierre Yves Daoust, from the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island, who was leading the necropsy.

He was teaching a group of students from the veterinary college what to do, and as they got covered with blubber, blood and bits of flesh, one student even asked a journalist to put her hair up for her because her hands were covered with blood.

A veterinarian from Dalhousie University, as well representatives from the New Brunswick Museum, the Truro Agricultural College and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, were also on site helping.

“A pretty diverse crowd,” says Reid. “It fosters some bonds as we do this as well.”

Reid says it’s unlikely the organs will show the cause of death.

“At this point it’s going to be quite decomposed, there’s not going to be much left of the internal organs, but it’s still important that we try and learn as much as we can. We don’t really know what we’ll find until we look.”

This is only the second time that a whale this large has been necropsied in Nova Scotia.

“Probably the main part that’s going to be of diagnostic importance is the skeleton,” he says. “Maybe find cause of death or just learn anything about the animal.”

Reid said the process was exciting, but very logistically challenging.

“Once we’re finished, it will feel good.”

The skeleton is slated to go to the Truro Agricultural College and then possibly to Dalhousie University at a later date.