Grey whale buried at B.C. dump exhumed added to provincial museum’s collection

A landfill on the west coast of Vancouver Island was the site of a unique event for scientists

They arrived at the dump ready to dig up a grey whale’s grave, carrying shovels, rakes, brushes and small garden tools, hoping the decomposition process had done the job of cleaning the bones and deodorizing the carcass after being buried for more than three years.

A landfill on the west coast of Vancouver Island was the site of a unique event where scientists and about a dozen volunteers recently exhumed the 10-metre long whale.

When the body of the young female washed up on Wickaninnish Beach at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve in April 2015, officials had to act quickly: haul the marine mammal out to sea or save the skeleton by burying it at the local dump.

The decision was made to preserve the bones for science, and that’s how a filter-feeding cetacean, which can reach lengths of almost 15 metres and weigh up to 36 tonnes, ended up covered in dirt at the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District landfill in Ucluelet.

“It could have been towed offshore and just sunk and nature would have recycled it, and that’s fine,” said Gavin Hanke, curator of vertebrate zoology at the Royal British Columbia Museum. ”But this specimen now is available for anyone to look at.”

Bald eagles screeched overhead and garbage trucks rumbled in the distance as the digging crew approached the burial mound that resembled a forest after three years, thick with prickly blackberry bushes and one-metre tall alder saplings that swayed in the wind.

After about one hour of hacking, digging and raking, large bones started to emerge.

Hanke, who came prepared to work in a smelly whale mess, put his gloves to his face and smiled.

“The whale itself smells like soil,” he said. “It’s fantastic. It doesn’t faze me at all to do this.”

The bones will be cleaned, catalogued and become part of the provincial museum’s marine mammal research collection, Hanke said.

Out of the burial site came individual vertebrae the size of small aircraft propellers and ribs longer than yard sticks. It took four people to lift the whale’s intact skull and jaw into the back of a pickup.

“The material is available for scientists around the world to come and measure, study, take DNA samples and look for stable isotopes for ecology,” said Hanke. “Every animal is different, just like every human is different. That’s why we collect so much.”

Carl Sieber said he was there when the whale was found on the beach, and he returned to use a rake to clear away dirt from the animal’s bones.

“From the moment it washed up, a lot of people were very interested, a lot of people came to look,” said the Parks Canada interpreter. “A whale is something a lot of people care about. They are sorry to see it there.”

He said everybody wondered about the cause of death, but a necropsy couldn’t provide the answer.

Sieber said the area’s Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, who have hunted whales in the past, held a ceremony on the beach that involved boiling the whale’s blubber in pots and keeping the oils.

Michi Main said she’s put together many whale and other sea creature skeletons for museums and other institutions as part of the Saltspring Island cetacean articulation business she has with her husband, Mike deRoos.

“The landfill kindly let us put the skeleton here and bury it for this three-year period,” she said. “They have a fully enclosed site here, which means no bears or other predators.”

Josh McInnes, a marine biologist at University of Victoria, said having a recently deceased whale specimen to examine gives researchers opportunities to study the animal’s life.

“By looking at these bones and looking at the health of the animal, it can tell us a lot about the biology and what’s going on in the ecosystem,” he said. “It’s important. These animals, they’re indicators of what’s really going on and how we’re dealing with this.”

McInnes said he found the experience of digging up a whale’s bones at a dump surreal and inspiring.

“Dumps are usually used for plastic, which is a huge issue right now for the environment, but why not put a whale here,” said McInnes.

Hanke said his first whale dig at a dump was a success.

“Basically, nature did the work for us and we’ve got nice clean bones now,” he said.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Dr. Lipjob avoids jail, gets 30-day suspended sentence

She will have to serve the 30 days in prison if she commits a breach during her two-year’s probation

Cloverdale’s Dan Gibbons remembered for his devotion, humour

Longtime local served with RCMP for more than 35 years

Surrey farmers taking stock of revamped Canada Food Guide

Products that were once big at the table — like meat and dairy — have been put on the back-burner

VIDEO: ‘The dog picks the job’: Meet the newest member of the Surrey RCMP

Cambria, a labrador-golden retriever mix, is the first victim services dog at the detachment

Surrey RCMP say men with gun steal Jeep from mom, daughter

Police say they are looking for video footage, and two South Asian suspects

Canada’s archive buys rare book that hints at Nazi plans for North America

The 1944 book may have served as a blueprint for a Nazi purge

B.C. hospital apologizes for veteran’s five-day hallway stay

Clinical director of Victoria General Hospital says case of retired veteran ‘definitely excessive’

Speaker Darryl Plecas says ‘justice’ needed for legislature employees

Plecas spoke to media at the opening of a pedestrian and cycling bridge in Abbotsford Wednesday

Advocate hopes B.C. legislature scandal leads to more transparency

‘Depressing’ that it takes a scandal to inspire freedom of information reform, says Sara Neuert

Ex-Mountie involved in Taser death at Vancouver airport sues government

Kwesi Millington claims he acted in accordance with RCMP training

47 men arrested by Vancouver police for allegedly seeking sex with teenage girls

Seven of those arrested have been charged as part of a two-month operation

Richmond businesses struggle to hire and keep staff because of high cost of housing

Chamber of commerce calls for diverse housing options, redevelopment of George Massey corridor

LETTER: Seniors home care, day programs expanding, Adrian Dix says

B.C. health minister responds to latest Seniors Advocate report

B.C. woman wins Instagram celebrity’s boob job contest

‘Kirill was here’ held a contest for women to win a boob job and a trip to Miami

Most Read