Sperm whale recovery part of a larger learning process

Diane Crocker dcrocker@thewesternstar.com
Published on August 23, 2014

Robert Scott will be watching a compost pile at Grenfell Campus pretty closely over the next year.

Buried in that pile are some bones that Scott is excited to share with Memorial University students and those who go through the Bonne Bay Marine Station in Norris Point.

The bones are from a sperm whale that washed up on the shore in Gros Morne National Park just north of Rocky Harbour this past winter.

Scott, an associate professor at the university and director of the marine station, said it’s likely the 35-foot whale suffered the same fate as many others did this past winter — getting caught in or crushed by heavy ice.

He first learned of the sperm whale in May and was approached by a biologist with the park about taking it. That was an opportunity he just couldn’t pass up.

“When you’re teaching comparative anatomy you can look in textbooks and you can see pictures of them, but how often do you get to actually go look at the vertebrae of a whale in your class? You don’t get that often, not at all.”

Scott first went to see the whale which was located in an area that not too many people visit in May. The whale was smelling then and there was some speculation that the carcass had exploded, but Scott didn’t see that. He said features like the fins and blow hole could still be recognized.

He continued to check on it over the next couple of months and even took a marine mammals class from the marine station out to see it.

Scott consulted with Mark Engstrom of the Royal Ontario Museum, who had worked on the recovery of the blue whale that washed up in Trout River, about the process to recover and prepare the bones. And he also got some advice from Catherine Hood, who was instructing a course on marine mammals at the station.

On Aug. 8, Scott and a team consisting of lab technician Andrew Stokes, graduate student Dion Kelly and undergraduate students Erika Young and Tiffany Fillier set off in some pickup trucks to recover the whale.

The group started by picking up all the bones they found strewn about the beach — the “easiest” ones “free of flesh” — and piled them in the grasser. Then they took knives and cut apart some of the remaining vertebrae.

“I’m not sure if everybody who took part would say it was fun,” he said with a laugh, “but they would definitely agree that it was smelly.”

The flesh they cut away was left with the other remains of the whale to decompose naturally on the beach. The bones — the vertebrae, the scapula and humerus — were loaded in the pan of a pickup and the ribs were wrapped in a tarp and put on a roof rack.

“We were quite the sight coming down the highway,” quipped Scott.

Once back at Grenfell the bones were put in a big compost pile, where Scott said there’s some good microbial activity going on that will take away any organic material on the bones. He said it will be checked regularly and some compost from Grenfell’s industrial composted added to it.