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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