Andrew Trites, director of the University of British Columbia’s marine mammal research unit, calls UBC’s new Beaty Biodiversity Museum the “library of life.” And he’s rather familiar with its “chief librarian” – a 25-metre-long blue whale skeleton. Its journey from Prince Edward Island to UBC is a tale in itself.
In the spring of 2008, after hearing that a blue whale had been buried off the Atlantic coast, Dr. Trites and a team of UBC scientists flew to Tignish, P.E.I., to exhume the skeleton, thinking it would make a fine centerpiece for the planned museum. What ensued was a smelly, sickly job: to extract the bones, the team had to hack their way through skin, blubber and muscle that had been left largely intact since the whale was buried 20 years before.
After retrieving the bones and shipping them to Victoria, they were met with another challenge: the “degreasing” phase. This consisted of draining the natural oils found in the bones, which had turned waxy and rancid after years of being buried. “It’s a lot like candle wax … from the smelliest, most offensive candle you could ever imagine,” says Dr. Trites.
By January of this year, the bones were clean and odour-free, and ready for assembly. Encased in glass and visible from outside the museum, the skeleton has been turning heads since it was installed this spring, says Dr. Trites. He hopes it will also turn heads as a symbol of biodiversity – there are fewer than 7,000 blue whales left in the world’s oceans. “The world’s largest animal could disappear because of hunting. Could you imagine?”
Want to see more pictures of the Blue Whale Project? Check out the museum’s Flickr photostream of the project.