National News

Plans to recover second blue whale up in air

By Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press

ROCKY HARBOUR, N.L. - News that the Royal Ontario Museum is reassessing plans to deal with a second giant blue whale carcass in western Newfoundland puts the town of Rocky Harbour in an awkward spot, says Mayor Walter Nicolle.

"We haven't done much looking into it because we assumed it was all taken care of up to now," he said Monday in an interview. "We just got news today they might not be taking it."

Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea announced May 1 that the museum in Toronto would preserve up to two skeletons along with tissue samples of the rare and endangered species.

Mark Engstrom, deputy director of collections and research for the museum, said he's reviewing his budget after unexpected costs.

He said he'll likely decide Tuesday whether his team can begin work on the second whale lying close to the fish plant in Rocky Harbour. If not, he'll discuss options with local officials.

"It might be that they want to move it. But the question is, where?" Engstrom said. "It's very difficult to dismantle the whale, so it's not a simple matter to dispose of it."

Engstrom's team continued Monday to dismember a 23-metre female blue whale near Woody Point, N.L.

It's one of nine Northwest Atlantic blue whales believed to have been crushed or drowned in unusually thick sea ice earlier this spring.

Work to remove and pack the whale's delicate skull, expected to be about nine metres long, was to wrap up Tuesday on schedule five days after the messy project began.

The museum is labelling each bone and preserving samples that will be trucked to Ontario and later available to global scientists. A future exhibit of an intact skeleton may be possible if money is available, Engstrom has said.

Municipal leaders in the prime tourism zone of Gros Morne National Park asked for help to deal with the huge carcasses after the federal government said it wasn't responsible.

Nicolle said Rocky Harbour, a community of about 1,000 people, hasn't got a budget for much.

"The only thing we can do is try to get it out of where it's to now and just pull it into a cove somewhere outside the community that's not accessible to people. And then we won't get the smell so bad."

The stink of a rotting whale is a lingering, putrid odour that is hard to exaggerate.

Some regional business leaders and residents would like to see at least one of the skeletons kept for a future display in the park already famous for its hiking trails.

"It's marvellous if they've got the funds to do it," Nicolle said. "But I mean there's no funds around to do that stuff."

The total population of the Northwest Atlantic blue whale was estimated at just 250 before the deaths this spring off Newfoundland.

Commercial whaling cut historic numbers of the majestic creatures — the largest animals on the planet — by 70 per cent. Their numbers remain low due to noise pollution, marine contaminants and collisions with ships, says the federal Fisheries department website.

Anthony Butt can see the remains of the Rocky Harbour whale from where he works at the Harbour Seafoods fish market.

"My first thought when I saw it was what a shame that such a lovely, large animal has gone to waste. But I'd like to see it go somewhere and be preserved so that people all around the world can see it."

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