How to clean Big Blue: Getting layer of dust off of UBC’s massive whale skeleton is no simple task

VANCOUVER — She is sometimes called Big Blue. Usually, just “the whale.”

They’re bland monikers for something that demands superlatives in every way: the world’s largest suspended whale skeleton, harvested from a female , or balaenoptera musculus, the biggest animal species that has ever lived. Blue can weigh 190,000 kilograms. They have hearts the size of motor cars.

Beside being the largest, Big Blue may also rank among the filthiest of suspended whale skeletons known to man.

For the past five years, the 25-metre-long whale skeleton has hung from wire cables attached to the ceiling of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the . Dust has accumulated. Lots of it. Cracks have begun to show on some of the old lady’s bones.

The skeleton needed a cleaning, and some cosmetic touch-ups here and there.

Richard Lam/Postmedia NewsRichard Lam/Postmedia NewsUBC's “Big Blue” skeleton belonged to a female blue whale that washed up on the coast of Prince Edward Island in 1987. The university installed it five years ago.

On Tuesday, a team of suspended whale skeleton specialists got to work on Big Blue, with industrial-sized vacuum cleaners, brushes and other tools. No puny feather dusters for this job. The team needed special lifts and cranes to get at every nook and cranny and Big Blue’s hundreds of bones, which range in size from fist-sized vertebra to a jaw as long as a giraffe is tall.

Mike de Roos is a master skeleton articulator who lives on Salt Spring Island. He climbed aboard a scissor lift Tuesday and inspected Big Blue’s remains. His partner, Michi Main, was on another lift at the tail end, some shouting distance away.

As they worked, detritus rained on spectators standing below. I looked up: whale bone dust drifted into my eyes.

Richard Lam/Postmedia NewsRichard Lam/Postmedia NewsMichi Main, master skeleton articulator, vacuums the jaw bone of UBC's “Big Blue” whale skeleton.

“It’s not so bad,” said Main and held her thumb and index finger about an inch apart. “I’ve seen dust this thick on some skeletons.”

Main and de Roos know this particular skeleton very well. In 2008, they travelled across to a beach on Prince Edward Island, where Big Blue lay under tonnes of red sand. She’d been buried there two — yes, two — decades earlier after washing ashore. The whale had been struck near the skull by a passing ship and had died from the wound, or so the theory goes.

The P.E.I. government and Canadian Museum of Nature officials decided to preserve the whale carcass and bones on the chance that someone might someday have scientific or academic use for them. UBC became interested, and acquired the remains.

Main and de Roos and a squad of UBC biologists went to P.E.I. and unearthed the dead beast. Some of the carcass had rotted over time, leaving nothing but bare bones. Closer to the broad mid-section, under piles of fetid blubber, the whale’s flesh was more or less preserved.

“It looked like red meat,” recalls Chris Stinson, now the Beaty Museum’s curatorial assistant of mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

But the smell. It was horrible. Once the dig was finished, and the whale remains were power-washed and most of the flesh and blubber was removed from the bones, Stinson threw away his soiled work clothes.

Big Blue’s skeleton was battered. Every bone was damaged, likely from the heavy machinery used to bury it under sand. The bones were collected and put inside a truck, then shipped across the country to a warehouse in Victoria, where they were drained of rancid whale oil, cleaned further and assembled, a process that took two years. By the time that work was finished, the Beaty Museum was built and was ready to receive the skeleton.

Big Blue is its star attraction, a massive showpiece that greets museum visitors as they enter the building on the UBC campus. She hangs there suspended, silent, alone, directly above the thousands of other mammalian skeletons stored in various cabinets in the museum’s archives.

But she will always remain the biggest and the American pygmy shrew the smallest. Unlike Big Blue, this minuscule rodent gives the UBC team no difficulties at all. Cleaning the thing would be a breeze — literally.

But it wouldn’t draw much of a crowd.

National Post

RelatedHere’s an incredible first look at the largest heart ever preserved: It weighs 400 poundsGraphic: How to skin a blue whale and prepare it for display in a museum‘Let’s just say an unbearable smell was emitted’: How do you reduce a blue whale to a pile of bones?
Richard Lam/Postmedia NewsRichard Lam/Postmedia NewsMike deRoos, master skeleton articulator, vacuums the rib cage of UBC's “Big Blue” whale skeleton.
Richard Lam/Postmedia NewsRichard Lam/Postmedia NewsMichi Main, master skeleton articulator, cleans and inspects UBC's “Big Blue” whale skeleton.

About Brian Hutchinson