#8 The Inside Story: A Right Whale Necropsy

Early on Sunday, Moe, Amy, Yan, Jess and I traveled back over to Nova Scotia to help a veterinary pathologist and his team perform a necropsy of the right whale that we towed ashore Friday evening (see Entry #6). We met Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust from the Atlantic Veterinary College, University of Prince Edward Island on the beach, were introduced to his team (Heather, Jessica and Phil) and made a plan to accomplish the job in two days with a crew of 10. Our tenth crew member was volunteer Cathy Merriman who has been active in right whale conservation for many years and happened to be visiting in the area. Certain logistics were arranged to make our job easier: an excavator and two dump trucks from SpecResources were standing by to help with the necropsy and disposal of the carcass, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) provided two fishery officers who helped us out tremendously with knife sharpening, crowd control, and other logistics.

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.


  1. Wow, thank you for all the hard work you do to help save right whales and for also sharing some of the not-so-nice parts of what it takes to be a whale researcher! Not just anyone could do what you do.

  2. I'm wondering if there's been any final results from the necropsy on this right whale? Did I miss the post?

  3. Final reports have not been reported but you did miss the latest update - Entry #10 'The Latest Right Whale Deaths'. We'll continue to update with the latest results. Its great to see public interest with issues important as right whale mortality. Thanks for the support and stay tuned!

  4. wow sounds like alot of hard work it sounds like it didnt take that long to do this necropsy. I dont think I could ever help with a necropsy because I am very squeamish. thanks for all your hard work. I hope North Atlantic Right Whale numbers will keep comming up.

  5. I just stumbled upon this article. What was the determined cause of death of this whale?

  6. Hello! We were hoping to blog about the updates for this necropsy- perhaps we still should! It was recently determined that this whale was an old male named Trident, Catalog #1113. The cause of death has been determined as entanglement- it appears that Trident was entangled in gear and drowned. The fractures found in the skull were postmortem.