A whale of a time

by Colin
Publish date
3 November 2011
Comments (3)

(Warning: this blog contains graphic images and bad puns.)

On 19 October I heard exciting news leaking down the underground corridors of Melbourne Museum and into the Live Exhibits Lab. Word that a Humpback Whale had beached itself on the western end of the Ninety Mile Beach in eastern Victoria, set my plan in motion to become involved in its subsequent recovery. I bailed up (approached) the Preparations Department manager Peter Swinkels in one of the corridors and offered my assistance. Fortunately he said yes and that if I could handle a tight squeeze in the car, I was welcome to come along and help out.

So we left the Museum the following Monday and headed for McGaurens Beach, a small stretch of coast located between Yarram and Sale. The car ride down was a bit of a squeeze with Peter Swinkels, Steven Sparrey (Preparation), Brendon Taylor (Preparation), Michael Pennell (Image Management & Copyright) and I (Live Exhibits) all stuffed into the Hilux for the three hour trip down to McGaurens Beach. We arrived around lunchtime, and started to inspect the dead whale and the surrounding conditions (such as the tide) to plan our course of action.

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) belong to the suborder Mysticeti, the group known as the baleen whales. Baleen is the keratin (the same material your fingernails) plates that the whales use to filter their food (krill, other zooplankton and small fish) with. Adult humpback whales can measure between 12-16 metres, and can weigh over 30 tonnes!

When we arrived at McGaurens Beach the whale sat just above the low tide mark. It would make it very hard to work on the whale when the tide came in, so we decided to move it higher up the beach and out of reach of the tide. This way we could work on it all day.

Humpback Whale on beach The Humpback Whale 6 days after it had died.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

To avoid damage to the flippers we removed them before the excavator dragged the whale up past the high tide mark. Although the excavator weighed 25 tonnes, it still struggled to pull the whale 50m up the beach.

Cutting off whale flippers Cutting off the flippers to enable easy movement up the beach.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

To cut off the flippers and through the flesh we used very large sharp knives and a special knife shaped like a hockey stick, called a flensing tool. Flensing tools were what whalers used to use to cut the blubber off whales before commercial whaling was banned in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Some legal whaling still continues today in indigenous communities as traditional hunting, and through exploiting legal loopholes under the guise of scientific research.

Peter Swinkels with a traditional flensing tool Manager of Preparation, Peter Swinkels, with a traditional flensing tool.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

After dragging the body past the high tide mark we took measurements of different parts of the whale. These measurements will be added to a big database full of information that helps us understand these wonderful creatures of the sea.

Measuring a whale Measuring the width of the tail flukes.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

After all the measurements had been recorded it was time to remove the skeleton. Firstly, we needed to find some small vestigial bones that are the remnants of the whale's hip and hind legs. Millions of years ago the ancestors of the modern whales we see today had front and rear limbs, and while the forelimbs slowly evolved into flippers, the hind limbs slowly disappeared and all that is left is a few tiny bones.

Vestigial hind limbs of Humback Whale Peter Swinkels holding the vestigial hind limbs.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

After cutting away most of the flesh and blubber we removed the vertebrae (the backbone). Slowly and carefully, we removed the ribs, the skull, and the mandible (the jawbone). All the fleshy waste was returned to sea, where it would be eaten and broken down by scavenging animals and bacteria.

Whale remains on beach The pile of blubber we made after removing it from the carcass.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria

Once we had all the bones, we dug a big hole and put the bones into it. We bury the bones so that bacteria and other flesh eating organisms can clean the bones for us. In about six months, we will return to where the bones are buried and bring them back to the museum for a few touch ups and further measurement. Perhaps one day they will be put on display at Melbourne Museum for you to see.

Whale bones in sand All the bones about to be buried in order to let the flesh decompose before taking them to Melbourne Museum.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria


ABC Gippsland: radio interview with Erich Fitzgerald

ABC Gippsland: photos and story about whale recovery

Infosheet: Blue Whale

MV News: Rare whale retrieved (2008)

MV Blog: What's that smell?

Comments (3)

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Heath 3 November, 2011 14:12
Nice job! Looks like some of the vertebrae are still articulated?
Rowena 3 November, 2011 16:03
Excellent work all of you.
John 3 November, 2011 17:02
Congratulation guys....i bet it smelt great.
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