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‘It smells like a dead whale – bad:’ Researchers begin nasty work

A rotting blue whale carcass sits on the shore in Trout River, N.L., on April 27, 2014.

Don Bradshaw/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Researchers began carving up the decaying remains of a rare blue whale on Thursday as they prepare to ship the animal's massive skeleton from Newfoundland to a museum in Toronto.

The team started stripping thick, smelly chunks of blubber off the adult female that died with eight other blue whales in unusually thick ice off the province's west coast.

Mark Engstrom, deputy director for collections and research at the Royal Ontario Museum, said a group of about 12 locals and museum staff began the painstaking work after the whale was towed behind a fishing trawler from Trout River to Woody Point.

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A crew wrapped the animal in net and slowly hauled it upriver before starting to remove its skin, blubber and skeletal muscles, a task he expects will take about five days in conditions that are less than pleasant.

"It looks pretty cool, but it smells like a dead whale – bad," Engstrom said with a laugh. "Yeah, dead whales have a very distinctive odour and this one is a big dead whale!

"Luckily, we've got a high wind blowing it out."

The team will take apart the skeleton and load it into a container to be transported to the museum. Engstrom says they will also try to determine if the whale drowned or was crushed in the ice.

He estimates it is about 22 to 23 metres long and weighs about 100 tonnes, making it heavier than previous estimates it was 60 tonnes.

The biggest challenge will be getting the whale's nine-metre skull into the container because of its size and weight.

Engstrom said once that work is done, he will decide whether to relocate another blue whale carcass to Woody Point from Rocky Harbour to undergo the same process. Both will be transported to the museum on trucks once the skeletons are ready.

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The whales were two of three that washed ashore in the area after they got stuck in the ice, dealing a devastating blow to one of Canada's most endangered marine species.

There are only about 250 blue whales left in the North Atlantic population, which has not recovered much since whaling stopped and they came under protection in the 1960s.

But Engstrom says that while the deaths are a setback for the fragile species, being able to recover the remains is a rare blessing that could provide valuable knowledge of the animal.

"In last 20 years, this is the first time that I know of of an accessible blue whale," he said, adding that a blue whale was recovered two decades ago in P.E.I.

"I think it's very important that we be able to preserve these for research and that we have them permanently in a collection."

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