Years of work to come on blue whale skeletons, genetic research

Gary Kean
Published on June 16, 2014

The flensing and transporting back to Ontario of two skeletons were just the first couple of chapters in the blue whale tale Mark Engstrom hopes to weave.

Engstrom is the Royal Ontario Museum's deputy director of collections and research who spearheaded the projects that saw the retrieval of skeletons from two dead blue whales that had washed ashore in Trout River and Rocky Harbour in May.

As much of the flesh of the whales was cut away and the skeletons dissected. They have now been transported back to Ontario for further processing, with the hope of eventually mounting both skeletons for display.

The museum plans to retain one skeleton and Memorial University, which came aboard as a partner on the second whale in Rocky Harbour, plans to take possession of the other one.

Earlier this week, Engstrom hosted a public discussion at the Royal Ontario Museum about his experience so far and where the project will go from here. It was open to the public, but most of the roughly 250 people who attended were associated with the museum.

The Royal Ontario Museum and Memorial University raised enough money to get the whale bones transported back to Trenton, Ont. for the next phase of the project, but there is still more work to be done, not the least of which is to keep raising funds to keep the work going.

“There are still more costs involved in terms of cleaning the bones and ultimately mounting them,” said Engstrom. “We have some other things we’re trying to do too. DNA sequencing will cost money and we’re looking at things like being able to record the bones and do (three-dimensional) scanning of the bones.”


Buried in July

Engstrom expects the bones will get buried in compost at Research Casting International’s facilities in Trenton in July. It is likely that will be done in the same shipping containers the museum bought to transport the bones from Newfoundland, since no one will likely want to ever use those containers again for anything.

“We will have to create a system where we can get oxygen through the containers because the compost will become aerobic pretty quickly,” said Engstrom. “We’ll put in a system of pipes so we can keep air flowing through.”

It will take between six months and a year for the compost to remove all the flesh still left on the bones. Engstrom figures the containers will be left until next summer.

The next step before the bones can be mounted is to remove the oil in the bones. That will take even longer than the composting process, but is necessary since any oil left in the bones will cause them to reek.

The scientific research into the whales will begin next week when Engstrom and his team examine the condition of tissue samples taken and begin doing some initial DNA sequencing. In collaboration with Memorial, the hope is to eventually sequence the entire genome of the whales.

That, said Engstrom, will be a massive undertaking which will require lots of time and effort.

“There’s enough (genetic) information in a blue whale that, if you just printed it on normal type, it would fill a set of Encyclopedia Britannicas,” he said.

Engstrom would like to turn the Trout River whale into a travelling exhibit, featuring the completely mounted skeleton and other items that help tell the whale’s story.

“When you propose a travelling exhibition, you have to go out and do audience testing to see if there are enough people interested in it to go through all the expense,” he said. “You also have to see whether there are other museums and venues that might want to take it.”

For the past several years, Engstrom has been collecting skeletons of whales of all sorts. His goal is to eventually have a full display of every big whale species found along the Eastern Seaboard. With a blue whale in the museum’s possession, Engstrom now only needs skeletons from a minke, a beluga and a narwhal.

“The really hard one was the blue whale because that’s so rare,” he said of the endangered species.

Engstrom plans to give more updates of the work being done on the blue whales. He figures the next public discussion will be scheduled for some time in the fall.