Mammoth whale being dug up at Phees Road near Norway

Nigel
Nigel Armstrong
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Mammoth whale being dug up at Phees Road near Norway

A whale of a story is unfolding in West Prince as the world's largest creature gets uncovered at Nail Pond and prepared for transport from one coast of Canada to the other.
Big is the least of the superlatives applicable to the project being called the big dig by some.
A blue whale washed ashore northwest of Tignish in November 1987 and was buried in the sand nearby. Now the University of British Columbia wants to display the skeleton at a new museum on its campus.
Canada does not have a blue whale skeleton on display and there are only 17 of them around the world, four in the United States.
A team from UBC led by Andrew Trites is at Nail Pond this week to carry the Canadian project forward. Helping them are some 30 volunteer staff and students from the University of Prince Edward Island plus volunteer students from Holland College.
Digging with an excavator starts today and there will be much holding of breath, both figurative and literal.
When Trites did an exploratory dig this past December he found the body surprisingly preserved, almost mummified, with skin still wrapped around blubber on the monster animal. That was for the part above the water table.
Trites is not certain what the condition of the remains will be like below the water level at the site located in the sand not far from the water's edge.
"We still have a bit of anxiety," Trites said during a public presentation on the project Wednesday in Charlottetown.
Not even the biggest dinosaur could equal the blue whale for length and weight. The whale's tongue weighs as much as an elephant. It heart is as big as a car and a baby could crawl through parts of its arteries.
Trites had list after list of extraordinary dimensions and degrees associated with the endangered blue whale. It dives some 200 to 300 metres below the sea to feed by plunging its gaping mouth towards swarms of tiny krill.
It stays below for some five to 15 minutes, holding its breath and when it comes to the surface, an awestruck "thar' she blows" would hardly do the event justice.
Out of two nostrils, also big enough for that baby to crawl through, a jet of oily-stench air is thrust some three stories high as the animal recovers and cleanses its blood, anxious to get down below in the relentless pursuit of its 10,000 pounds of food per day.
"Not only does (that air) smell really bad, but it's oily as well so droplets stick to you," said Trites. "They have really bad breath."
The oil and smell is going to be a big challenge for the team on P.E.I.
"This past December when I was here I was touching the bones with my hands and I forgot and held up my camera up to get a picture," said Trites. "My camera still smells . . . but in a good way."
The public is welcome to come watch the Nail Pond excavation, which should see the whole carcass uncovered by Saturday, but Trites warns onlookers to be careful.
"You don't want to get into that goo," he said of the decomposing liquefied blubber, water and sand at the pit.
Trites said the team's clothing will be destroyed at the end of the dig.
He expects the uncovering will take about two days, followed by three days to cut up and record the remains.
"The whole crew will be slicing and dicing by Saturday," predicts Trites.
The team even includes three people whose sole job is sharpening knives. Then there is the tagger with some 1,000 tags for identification, the photographer for every big or tiny piece and the film crew from Discovery Channel that is following the whole project through.
The team brought a mammoth chain saw from B.C. to help slice the skull in half.
That is required to get inside to clean it out and support it for transport, said Trites.
Once dug up, cut up and recorded, the whale parts will be packed into a container and transported across Canada by rail, free of charge courtesy of CN Rail, said Trites.
To follow the progress of that journey, just follow the seagulls, he quipped.
His team also received free transport courtesy of WestJet which donated airfare to the project.
Also making a donation was a real estate development company in B.C. which donated space in Victoria where the bones will be arranged, repaired and assembled in what Trites called "major reconstruction."
That is, after the bones have been de-greased.
"That will be our next big challenge," said Trites.
The team explored an offer from a helicopter cleaning company but its tubs of degreaser were not big enough, it turned out. Now the team is going to try a fairly new technique of immersing the bones in vats contained an enzyme that purports to digest oil.
The goal is to suspend and display the skeleton by the fall of 2009 in an all-glass atrium above the stairs leading down to the underground Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC. The Beaty will house some 2 million specimens now in the care of UBC but spread around the campus in storage.

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Organizations: Holland College, University of British Columbia, University of Prince Edward Island Discovery Channel CN Rail WestJet Beaty Biodiversity Museum

Geographic location: Canada, Phees Road, Norway West Prince Tignish United States Charlottetown B.C. Victoria

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Recent comments

  • Rotten
    June 21, 2010 - 20:35

    To Rob from montague...get back to work you big slacker!

  • fishing
    June 21, 2010 - 20:34

    An amazing undertaking to be sure. I notice that all the PEI'ers are volunteering their time. Sweet of us, isn't it? Imagine for a moment people coming to PEI to see Anne and then getting to see the largest animal in the world on display in the Canada's smallest province....duh. Congratulations BC on your bright minds for seeing the value in this spectacular opportunity to educate the world. Pity our own kind can't see beyond Anne.

  • Dwaine
    June 21, 2010 - 20:30

    For god sake, let the beast rot in peace.

  • Island Reader
    June 21, 2010 - 20:25

    How good of the railroad and airplane to donate their space for such a wonderful project! As a previous poster said,PEI buried him so don't complain now that BC is claiming him! I;m sure when it's all said and done they will have a plaque which states he was washed up on our little island. It's also nice to hear about all the peisland volunteers,maybe they're not as greedy as most comments on this website indicate!

  • Calico
    June 21, 2010 - 20:12

    There are only 20 of these magnificent animals on display in the world. None in Canada. This will be the first.

    Thankfully the university in BC saw the scientific and human interest value in this..

    Islanders buried it and forgot about it. We are so quaint.

  • Gus in Ottawa
    June 21, 2010 - 20:12

    Keep on Asking Questions.

    Did anyone ask PEI's permission to remove the whale?

    Did they ask the university or museums if they wished to display the skeleton?

    Did they volunteer to mount an exhibit on the Island?

    As someone who has lived in B.C., I know they have had big struggle to repatriate Indian artififacts that were spirited out of the province. Lots of words like theft were used towards other museums.

    You would think a university could be more sensitive about removing something as significant as a blue whale from PEI.

  • Too Late
    June 21, 2010 - 20:08

    This will be a Huge tourist draw. It is too bad we didn't take advantage of this. This is the largest animal to ever live on the planet.

  • AH
    June 21, 2010 - 20:06

    To fishing from PEI...where exactly would you recommend displaying this huge skeleton on PEI?

  • Rob
    June 21, 2010 - 20:02

    How about a milti-million dollar building in Montague, Between the new school and the New Wellness Center?

  • Lloyd
    June 21, 2010 - 19:56

    To AH, how about displaying it in the Legislature, it is seldom used anyway. And while they are at it; I buried my dead turtle in Mount Herbert when I was 10 y/o in 1959. Maybe they could dig that up and display them together...Ha, Ha ...