Black teenager launches racial justice project in Nova Scotia
Have you heard about the SaltWire News app?
Daily fall forecasts and weather facts from Cindy Day
SaltWire's cartoonists bring heart and humour to the news.
SaltWire Selects: Living with the legacies of 1960s decisions
What you need to know about COVID-19: September 24, 2020
SUMMERSIDE, P.E.I. – ‘X’ didn’t exactly mark the spot.
All Edward Meyer had to go on was a home address, a faded scrap of paper full of vaguely sketched directions and a head full of memories that were 20 years out of date.
That was in 2009, and Meyer and his colleagues from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not were trying to find a 38-foot-long sperm whale carcass they’d buried two decades earlier on P.E.I.’s North Shore in 1989.
Meyer spent 40 years with Ripley’s, almost all of which as vice president of exhibits and archives – which is a fancy way of saying he was the guy who travelled the world buying and collecting oddities for the company’s chain of museums.
(It was) very very naive. (I had) no idea how to buy a whale, how to make a whale display and at that time didn’t really know much about P.E.I., to be honest.
- Edward Meyer, former vice president of exhibits and archives, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not
But Meyer retired last year and has been busy writing a book about his career in one of the world’s most interesting jobs.
The end product is “Buying the Bizarre: Confessions and Adventures of a Compulsive Collector,” which is available now through the Kindle store. There is a chapter, in the section labelled “Ones That Got Away,” about Meyer’s 20-year personal mission to find a home for that P.E.I. whale.
“Yes, it got away, but it is very much a personal Ripley’s, Edward Meyer adventure,” remarked the author from his Florida home.
“I consider it one of the most interesting things that happened in my 40-year career.”
It was the summer of 1989 and Ripley’s was building its second Canadian museum, in Cavendish.
That spring, Meyer, who was working out of Toronto at the time, heard a CBC story about a sperm whale washing ashore in P.E.I. The species is relatively uncommon in the Gulf of St. Lawrence so its appearance caused a stir.
“I went into overdrive mode … I said this is a perfect exhibit to display in our P.E.I. museum,” recalled Meyer.
“(It was) very very naive. (I had) no idea how to buy a whale, how to make a whale display and at that time didn’t really know much about P.E.I., to be honest,” he added.
Meyer and his colleagues arrived on the Island and followed the smell of rotting flesh to the 20-tonne animal’s remains, which were beached near Malpeque. They negotiated with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to take possession of the remains, then hired a heavy equipment company to bury the body on a property down the road in Hamilton.
The idea was to come back the next year, dig up the bones and incorporate the skeleton into the Cavendish museum.
They came back in the spring of 1990 to dug a test hole, only to find the carcass in exactly the same condition they’d left it in.
“After a full year we would have expected to find a skeleton, but we still found a whale,” said Meyer.
“It was preserved like it had been in ice.”
The experts Ripley’s was working with said that P.E.I.’s soil was, essentially, too cold to support the kind of insect life that would eat away the carcass’s soft tissue.
Ripley’s went back to the site again in 1995, but by that time circumstances had changed. The economics of digging up and displaying the bones just weren’t there anymore.
That changed again in 2009 when Ripley’s started building the Aquarium of Canada in Toronto.
The company had two other aquariums, both in the U.S., which displayed smaller whale skeletons, so Meyer suggested they do the same with their P.E.I. sperm whale.
“There was only two or three people (in the company) who knew it was there after 20 years and I was one of them,” he said.
So, Meyer and his colleagues dug out their 20-year-old hand-drawn directions, which “really, seriously, looked like a pirate treasure map,” and headed for P.E.I.
However, their enthusiasm was soon tempered when they discovered the land they wanted to search had since changed hands. The new owner, who was a seasonal resident, absolutely did not want a bunch of strangers digging up this property trying to find old bones.
For three years the two sides negotiated through lawyers until Ripley’s finally gave up and Meyer acquired a humpback whale skeleton instead. It is still on display in the Toronto aquarium.
As far as Meyer is aware, the sperm whale carcass is still exactly where he buried it in 1989 – though he’s received estimates that put its resting place now worryingly close to the edge of the shore thanks to erosion.
“We thought we had put it in a safe place, but there is the possibility it has been washed out to sea,” he said.
Matthew Jelley, president of Maritime Fun Group, purchased the Cavendish Ripley’s several years ago and at that time had some preliminary discussions to potentially recover the whale’s remains. However, those negotiations never really progressed to the point where there was a formal agreement.
“It’s something that is still a long-term project for us. We have made some contact, but it’s not something we’re pursuing aggressively by any stretch,” said Jelley.
“There kind of has to be both an impetus to spend the money to get it out of the ground and then a willingness with all parties to work towards it. I’m just not sure we’re there.”
Jelley also pointed to a blue whale that was excavated from the Tignish area in 2008 as an example of how much work a project like this can be. That whale was buried in 1987 but the scientists who dug it up had to cut through incredible amounts of flesh on site and still had to process the bones off-site to remove further organic material. That skeleton now hangs in the Beaty Biodiversity Museum on the University of British Columbia campus.
If all the stars aligned and a serious opportunity came along to dig up the Hamilton whale, Jelley would like to see it remain on the Island.
Anyone who is interested can see a small section of the whale’s jaw bone on display at the Cavendish Ripley’s museum. That piece was removed for study by DFO prior to the burial of the body.
Meyer too would like to see the bones put to good use, but is otherwise content to leave them where they are for now.
“I’d just as soon it stays in the ground – unless somebody was determined to make a fabulous display out of it,” he said.
In the meantime – it makes for a whale of a tale.
Five Fast Facts about Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
- Ripley’s Believe It or Not! was founded by Robert Ripley as a newspaper panel in 1918, and became syndicated in papers around the world in 1929
- Ripley departed on his first around the world journey in 1922, where he collected stories and oddities, he published his material in books that became best sellers
- The first Ripley’s Odditorium opened in 1933 at the Chicago, Illinois, World Fair, but the first permanent museum didn’t open until 1955 in St. Augustine, Florida
- Ripley died on May 27, 1949, after collapsing on the set of his weekly television show
- As of 2019, the Ripley’s brand operated 69 attractions around the world, including Louis Tussaud’s Wax Works, aquariums, haunted adventures, mirror mazes and more.