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Whale Wrap-Up

Posted on 22-11-2017 by Becky Desjardins

Becky Desjardins is preparator and part of the whale team. She describes the work that was involved by dissecting the whale that was found dead at Texel on November 14th.

Last week we went up to the coast of Holland to work on a dead Minke Whale that had floated into the harbor at Texel.  After a day of the usual extensive preparations that this type of work requires, we drove up north early in the morning to begin dissecting.

We arrived at the worksite just as the sun was rising and began dissecting before 9 in the morning! We prefer to start early, because we never know how long the process will take, and for this smaller animal our goal was get it completed in one day.  Twhe 7m long whale had been dead for quite some time: the skin had mostly rotted off leaving a bloated, pale colored carcass. Whale work is always gross and smells terrible, but the truth is the more rotten the animal the easier it is for us to work on! The rotten meat requires less effort to cut it off than a fresh animal.

Photo: The team started dissecting early in the morning.

We heard rumors that the whole head of the whale was missing, but happily that was not the case, though the right lower jaw bone was missing  the rest of the skull was intact.  We began the cutting by separating the skull from the rest of the body and because it was so rotten,  were able to easily get the meat off of it. Then we started removing blubber from the body and after that separating and removing the bones. The first hours went quickly and ribs were pulled out as well as one of the flippers. The biggest surprise was yet to come: as we worked we discovered that the whale was pregnant with a nearly 2m long foetus! This tells us that a) the whale is a female and b) she had reached sexual maturity, which in female Minke whales is between the ages of six and eight years old.  Which means she was potentially an older animal. The foetus was 1.6m long. When the young are born the average size is between 2-4-2.6m long, so this pregnancy must have been quite far along. Gestation lasts 10 months for Minke whales, and The females produce a baby every 2-3 years.

We continued to work, and had the help of a crane which lifted large sections of the spine out out and laid them on the ground where we could more easily work on separating the vertebrae (this speeds up maceration, which is the next step in the preparation process).  After a quick lunch break (where we take off 3 layers of gloves and very carefully eat a sandwich) we went back to work, pulling out the last ribs, shoulder blade and flipper from the side of the whale that laid on the ground.  We also worked on removing the tendons and ligaments from around the flippers and tail. These thick masses of white stringy tissues are very dense and tough and take lots of time to remove.

Photo: a large crane helped lifting the heavy parts of the whale.

Around 2 in the afternoon we were finished, but then still had to clean up, which always takes another hour or so.  We used a pressure washer to clean off our equipment including the knives, boots, and cutting gloves which went fast, and maybe the fact that it started to pour with rain helped. Finally, we packed the dirty trash and suits to be disposed of, and were happy to take hot showers after.  Around dinner time we headed home.

The bones will now go to a preparator who has a large studio where he has space to clean the bones. They will be soaked in warm water for a few months to remove any remaining meat and fat and finally treated with a chemical bath. After all those steps are completed the clean and dry bones will come into the scientific collection here at Naturalis.