Exhibit of western Newfoundland blue whale will be more than just bones

Published on February 27, 2017

The bones of one of the blue whales salvaged in western Newfoundland in the spring of 2014 are seen here going through the degreasing process.

©Sally McIntyre photo

Mark Engstrom thought putting a blue whale skeleton back together was going to be challenging enough.

These days, the bones of the blue whale that washed ashore in Trout River in the spring of 2014 are just another detail of the exhibit being put together at the Royal Ontario Museum.

“Out of the Depths: The Blue Whale Story” will be much more than the telling of the story of one of the two blue whales to wash ashore in western Newfoundland three years ago.

Engstrom, the Royal Ontario Museum’s senior curator and deputy director of collections and research, has been tasked with compiling a full-out exhibition that tells the story of the species itself.

“It’s more nerve-wracking than exciting,” he said in a recent interview. “We have so many moving parts.”

The mounted whale skeleton will be accompanied by a wide variety of informative displays detailing blue whale biology, evolution and conservation efforts.

It’s set to open to the public March 11, but the week leading up to that will include a number of previews for special groups such as the media, museum governance and dignitaries.

“I’m going to be very tired that week,” said Engstrom.

While he said he’s had a shorter amount of time to prepare this exhibition, preparations no more hectic than any other exhibit as it nears opening day.

“If we had 10 years to do this exhibition, we’d still be doing all this in the last two weeks,” he said.

One component won’t be ready for opening day and that’s the heart of the whale that was beached in Rocky Harbour. The museum has sent that to Germany to be preserved and expects the huge organ to join the exhibit by Canada Day.

Engstrom said the heart is about six feet tall, five feet wide and five feet deep.

“It’s pretty impressive,” he said of its size.

The preserved heart will feature a dissected portion of its epicardium so visitors will be able to see inside the organ.

While it’s the whales that have been the stars of the show, Engstrom said the experience has given him a great fondness for working with people from Newfoundland and Labrador and he promises to not be a stranger to the province.

“The project wouldn’t have been a quarter as much fun or as interesting if it wasn’t for the people there,” he said.


What else will be in the “Out of the Depths: The Blue Whale Story” exhibition, opening next week at the Royal Ontario Museum?

The tale

• One section will tell the story of the two beached blue whales in Trout River and Rocky Harbour and the effort by the Royal Ontario Museum and local volunteers in western Newfoundland to salvage their skeletons for preservation and eventual mounted displays.

The body at work

• This component will describe various aspects of whale biology. It will feature a chamber where visitors can hear the loudest call of any animal on earth. There will also be a section on how whales breathe, including an interactive model of a whale’s blowhole.

The bones

• Besides the mounted skeleton of the Trout River whale in swimming mode with its mouth closed, the museum will have a mould of the whale’s skull with its mouth gaping wide open in feeding mode. People will be able to stand inside the mouth to appreciate its gargantuan size. The model will also feature 550 plates of preserved baleen salvaged from the whale and carefully placed in proper position to help explain how the whale filter feeds.

The past, present and future

 • There will be sections on blue whale genetics and evolution, along with conservation efforts or the species.

The big ticker

• For comparison purposes, the section reserved for the blue whale’s heart will also feature a series of hearts from other creatures, including a mouse, a raccoon, a moose, a lion, a human and a killer whale. Until the much larger blue whale heart arrives in time for July 1, the museum will have a Smart car positioned in its place as it is about the same size as the blue whale’s heart.

Source: Mark Engstrom, Royal Ontario Musuem

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