Grey whale buried at B.C. dump exhumed added to provincial museum’s collection

A landfill on the west coast of Vancouver Island was the site of a unique event for scientists

They arrived at the dump ready to dig up a grey whale’s grave, carrying shovels, rakes, brushes and small garden tools, hoping the decomposition process had done the job of cleaning the bones and deodorizing the carcass after being buried for more than three years.

A landfill on the west coast of Vancouver Island was the site of a unique event where scientists and about a dozen volunteers recently exhumed the 10-metre long whale.

When the body of the young female washed up on Wickaninnish Beach at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve in April 2015, officials had to act quickly: haul the marine mammal out to sea or save the skeleton by burying it at the local dump.

The decision was made to preserve the bones for science, and that’s how a filter-feeding cetacean, which can reach lengths of almost 15 metres and weigh up to 36 tonnes, ended up covered in dirt at the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District landfill in Ucluelet.

“It could have been towed offshore and just sunk and nature would have recycled it, and that’s fine,” said Gavin Hanke, curator of vertebrate zoology at the Royal British Columbia Museum. ”But this specimen now is available for anyone to look at.”

Bald eagles screeched overhead and garbage trucks rumbled in the distance as the digging crew approached the burial mound that resembled a forest after three years, thick with prickly blackberry bushes and one-metre tall alder saplings that swayed in the wind.

After about one hour of hacking, digging and raking, large bones started to emerge.

Hanke, who came prepared to work in a smelly whale mess, put his gloves to his face and smiled.

“The whale itself smells like soil,” he said. “It’s fantastic. It doesn’t faze me at all to do this.”

The bones will be cleaned, catalogued and become part of the provincial museum’s marine mammal research collection, Hanke said.

Out of the burial site came individual vertebrae the size of small aircraft propellers and ribs longer than yard sticks. It took four people to lift the whale’s intact skull and jaw into the back of a pickup.

“The material is available for scientists around the world to come and measure, study, take DNA samples and look for stable isotopes for ecology,” said Hanke. “Every animal is different, just like every human is different. That’s why we collect so much.”

Carl Sieber said he was there when the whale was found on the beach, and he returned to use a rake to clear away dirt from the animal’s bones.

“From the moment it washed up, a lot of people were very interested, a lot of people came to look,” said the Parks Canada interpreter. “A whale is something a lot of people care about. They are sorry to see it there.”

He said everybody wondered about the cause of death, but a necropsy couldn’t provide the answer.

Sieber said the area’s Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, who have hunted whales in the past, held a ceremony on the beach that involved boiling the whale’s blubber in pots and keeping the oils.

Michi Main said she’s put together many whale and other sea creature skeletons for museums and other institutions as part of the Saltspring Island cetacean articulation business she has with her husband, Mike deRoos.

“The landfill kindly let us put the skeleton here and bury it for this three-year period,” she said. “They have a fully enclosed site here, which means no bears or other predators.”

Josh McInnes, a marine biologist at University of Victoria, said having a recently deceased whale specimen to examine gives researchers opportunities to study the animal’s life.

“By looking at these bones and looking at the health of the animal, it can tell us a lot about the biology and what’s going on in the ecosystem,” he said. “It’s important. These animals, they’re indicators of what’s really going on and how we’re dealing with this.”

McInnes said he found the experience of digging up a whale’s bones at a dump surreal and inspiring.

“Dumps are usually used for plastic, which is a huge issue right now for the environment, but why not put a whale here,” said McInnes.

Hanke said his first whale dig at a dump was a success.

“Basically, nature did the work for us and we’ve got nice clean bones now,” he said.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Lake Country candidates reflect on previous council

This week’s question is what could have been done differently?

Arkells to perform in Kelowna as part of latest album tour

The rock and rollers are performing Feb. 5 at Prospera Place

Children’s book based on the Okanagan is released

The book, based on Wild Horse Canyon will be released Oct. 20 after a long wait

Kelowna entrepreneur nominated for award

Kristy Carruthers has been announced as a finalist for the Stevie Awards

Beaverton author takes new approach to Canadian history

Alex Huntley will be presenting his book in Lake Country, Oct. 27

Your morning news in 90: Oct. 19, 2018

Tune in for 90 seconds to get the top headlines for the Okanagan, Shuswap and Similkameen.

Watch it again: Kelowna mayoral candidates square off

Missing the LIVE Kelowna mayoral debate watch now

5 races to watch in B.C.’s municipal elections this Saturday

This year’s election results across more than 160 cities in B.C. will start pouring in after polls close Saturday at 8 p.m.

Annual pace of inflation slows to 2.2 per cent in September: Statistics Canada

Statistics Canada said Friday the consumer price index in September was up 2.2 per cent from a year ago compared with a year-over-year increase of 2.8 per cent in August

Dog deaths in Lower Mainland may be tied to suspected mushroom poisoning: RCMP

Police have received reports in the last month about several dogs becoming ill after visiting a park in North Vancouver

Record-breaking $113 million Lotto Max jackpot up for grabs

This is Canada’s highest top prize offering ever and includes 53 Max Millions

Migrants, police mass in town on Guatemala-Mexico border

Many of the more than 2,000 Hondurans in a migrant caravan trying to wend its way to the United States left spontaneously with little more than the clothes on their backs and what they could quickly throw into backpacks.

Trump: ‘Severe’ consequences if Saudis murdered Khashoggi

Pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak on Wednesday said it had obtained audio recordings of the alleged killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

Feds dead set against ‘ridiculous’ quotas to replace steel, aluminum tariffs

Donald Trump imposed the so-called Section 232 tariffs — 25 per cent on steel and 10 per cent on aluminum — back in June on national security grounds.

Most Read