Whale of a Time….
Having been born and raised on the prairies, I have never seen a whale.
That is, until I began working as a summer student at the CWHC branch of British Columbia. In the first week of June, a grey whale was found dead in Boundary Bay. Crews from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) spotted the animal and used a coast-guard hovercraft to tow her onshore. The mature female was the sixth grey whale found dead in the waters of British Columbia this year. There have already been 60 grey whale deaths in the United States and 73 in Mexico; officials have declared an “unusual mortality event”, triggering scientific investigation into the cause.
Dr. Steven Raverty, a veterinary pathologist at the CWHC with renowned expertise on marine mammals, was contacted to perform a necropsy to determine the cause of death of the whale. He kindly invited me to come along.
Even in death, the 13.8 metre female was magnificent. Eager to assist with the necropsy, I donned fishing waders and duct-taped them over my rubber boots. Throwing on gloves, I began helping remove the whale’s blubber so that we could access her internal organs. Before this experience, I expected blubber would be similar to thick butter. I could not have been more wrong. It’s full of collagen and is extraordinarily challenging to cut.
Once we had the blubber and ribs removed, the real work began, we began searching for internal organs. Landmarks I had learned that year in veterinary anatomy suddenly became exceptionally relevant. The finding of each new organ was coupled with anatomical instruction from Dr. Raverty; I learned that Grey whales have a rumen and have nearly a dozen pseudo-cervices, they have kidneys composed of many, smaller, independent kidneys. I began to fully appreciate the many unique specializations of giant marine mammals.
Determining the cause of death of an individual whale is critical to identify potential threats for the rest of the population. Unfortunately, the cause of death of this particular whale was not immediately obvious. She was in good body condition; she had plenty of blubber, did not appear to have been hit by a vessel, and was not entangled in plastic or netting. We collected samples from each major organ for further analysis.
Not many people can say that the first time they saw a whale, they sliced it open and sampled its internal organs. Despite smelling like salt and rancid fat for the rest of the day, I am beyond grateful to have had this once-in-a-lifetime learning experience.
If you come across a live or dead marine mammal within British Columbia, please call the reporting hotline at 1-800-465-4336. The hotline is monitored 24 hours a day and ensures that investigators can get to the animal as soon as possible. A quicker response means that live animals can be saved, and that dead ones can be necropsied faster to yield better information.
CWHC-BC summer student