Jump to content Jump to navigation

Today is a whale of a day

Posted on 16-11-2017 by Becky Desjardins

Preparator Becky Desjardins is part of the Whaleteam, that comes in action today!

Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), or dwergvinvis as they are know in Dutch, are the second smallest of all the baleen whales. Despite the small size of 5-12 meters, they are very very fast swimmers at 40 kilometers per hour!  This day we are going to work one that was brought in at the harbour of the island of Texel.  We do not know anything about the cause of death yet,  however, the back part of the animal is very damaged, which could indicate a ship strike.  When these fast swimming whales meet a fast moving ship, it is never good for the whale.

Yesterday afternoon, we were busy getting ready everything that you need to take with you when you go to work on a dead whale. Our main goal is to preserve the skeleton, so there will be a lot of cutting! We have to bring knives, of course, but that is just part of it.  We also have to bring ethanol and jars for preserving DNA samples as well as any whale lice that might be found.  To protect ourselves from coming in contact with the flesh and fluids of the whale we must wear special suits: they look like a one piece raincoat. Under these uniforms we wear a tyvek suit and under that old clothes that don’t mind getting all stinky.

Photo: the minke whale is dissected on a special boat in the harbour of Harlingen

Gloves are a whole other matter. We wear three of them!  One regular nitrile glove on the bottom. A black rubber glove with a longer sleeve over that. And then, on the hand that is not holding the knife, a chain mail glove that protects the hand from cuts.  On our feet are knee high steel toed rubber boots and the thickest socks (rubber boots don’t have any insulation).

Photo: the researchers are wearing a special suit and three layers of gloves!


We have a team of eight people set to go today, but by far one of the most important people on the team is the “clean hands”. This is someone who comes with us and wears the suit but does NOT do any cutting: once you get covered in whale yuckiness, it is tricky to clean off.  Our “clean hands” answers the phone, deals with the press and takes care of the team: organizes our lunch, feeds us candy and sometimes has to blow our noses or wipe hair out of our faces. We can’t touch anything with our gross hands!  

I have  worked on many whales and know that it is much easier to work on a whale in the winter than the summer.  All the activity of cutting away large chunks of whale meat creates lots of heat, so in the summer we feel very hot and miserable. Tomorrow is supposed to be 11 degrees C with a slight chance of rain. So good weather for doing physical labor!

Photo: research on the found whale will learn us more about their life and anatomy. This helps understanding and protecting whales in the future!