The ultimate goal of a whale necropsy is to determine cause of death; since there are usually several possibilities, we collect as much data as possible. The first step is to measure different parts of the body as well as blubber thickness, which can help us judge if the whale was healthy. This whale appeared to be a fit adult male, measuring 13.7 meters (45 feet) in length with blubber thickness of up to 20 cm (8 inches).
Jess and Yan peel away blubber with the help of the excavator.
The next part of the necropsy involved peeling away the blubber in order to examine the internal organs and muscle. Some of the organs were no longer intact, but the lungs and heart still provided us with valuable information, and possible blood clots were found in the lungs and bronchial tree. Samples were collected, but they will need to be analyzed back in the lab before we can draw any conclusions. However, if they actually are blood clots, this would indicate a hemorrhage occurred. Other samples collected included skin, which through DNA analysis may reveal who the animal was, and a small amount of fecal matter, which may be able to provide hormone levels.
As the light (and our energy) faded, we put our tools aside for the day and spent the night in a hostel. We were sent straight to the showers since eau de dead whale is not pleasant for anyone. Early the next morning, we returned to finish the task of uncovering the rest of the skeleton and removing the remains from the beach. Our noses now quite used to the smell and our knife skills finely tuned, we set to work and separated bones from connective tissue so that the skeleton can be displayed in a museum in the future.
Working to expose the skeleton requires intense labor!
We made some curious discoveries as we unveiled the skull: several large fractures in the rostrum, which is the upper jaw, as well as fractures in the skull and both ear bones. The ear bones in particular are embedded deep in the skull, so to have both broken suggests an tremendous impact to the head. This collision could have happened while the animal was alive, or it could have happened after the animal was already dead. Analyses of the bone samples we collected will help determine when this impact occurred.
Important discoveries are made: fractures are revealed in the
skull and both sides of the rostrum.
As we finished disposing of the body, we discussed the next steps. A necropsy is never pleasant- it's emotionally and physically draining. The amount of labor, organization, and the smell can all be overwhelming. I found that I had to suspend my idea of what is "disgusting" in the name of science. Previously, the largest animal I had ever dissected was a piglet, perfectly preserved in formaldehyde. This was a 45 ton carcass that had been rotting for about two weeks! However, once the analyses are complete, we should learn who this whale was and get some idea of the cause of death, which makes the whole process worth it.
Carrying out any thorough necropsy requires a tremendous amount of coordination and the funds to accomplish the job. DFO was integral to this whole event with logistical and financial support. With the help of Captain Stanley Stanton to tow the carcass, the heavy machinery operators who worked diligently to help carefully dismantle the carcass, the local residents of Gulliver's Cove and surrounding area who provided help with fensing as well as providing cool drinking water, and the hostel owners who cooked the weary workers a delicious dinner, we were able to accomplish this challenging task more easily than is sometimes the case. We are grateful for all the support provided.