whale spine - A. McDonald
A. McDonald

A big part of the Water Project is the new permanent gallery to be housed in Ottawa, and a big part of that gallery is a real, full-sized blue whale skeleton. This skeleton will be close to 20m (65 ft)! It’s going to be a truly amazing experience to be able to stand next to a giant. I can’t wait.

When a big specimen comes in that needs a lot of work, the technicians often give it a pet name. This is a bit of a tradition in the museum world. The name that was given to our Blue Whale is Tallulah. No one knows why, but that name seems to have come to her and it stuck.

I thought I’d share with you where Tallulah came from and how she ended up at the museum. Here’s the official history:

The beached whale was found at Codroy, off the Cape of Anquille, Newfoundland and was flensed on the beach under contract between April 22 and May 10 1975. It was a less than mature female.

The skeleton was shipped by rail car to Ottawa along with the rest of the accessioned material. The oily bones were removed to the NMNS Catherine Street building and the wooden rail car was burned on the siding by the rail company with the cost reimbursed by the NMNS.

Whales have a lot of fat in their bodies and when a whale dies that fat begins to turn rancid. If you have ever smelled rancid fat it is not a pleasant experience! But the worst part is that the horrible smell sticks around! I can only imagine what that burning railcar smelled like – and wish I hadn’t!

whale jaw - A. McDonald
A. McDonald

It became abundantly clear to staff in the building that the skeleton, along with the others required attention and the lot was hastily buried in the NCC tree nursery on Russell Road, in a sandy clay soil, for eight years.

In order for the soil bacteria to do their job, there have to be some specific conditions. From what I understand these were not the conditions in the place they buried Tallulah. When they dug up the skeleton a lot of the oil and fat was still in the bones. This means that they still stunk! If we were going to put Tallulah on display we would have to find a way to clean them.

whale tank - A. McDonald
A. McDonald

In preparation for potential exhibit in the Water gallery it was recognized that (…) the blue whale skeleton was unsuitable for public display in its current condition. The challenge of de-oiling the skeleton in a cost effective, WHMIS-acceptable and secure way pointed to the use of enzymes in house. The skeleton is currently in two tanks; one 1000 liter and the other 6000 liter; bathed or sprinkled with a commercial enzyme cleaner and lipase (pancreatic) enzymes held at 50-55 degrees C for several months. It is the fourth whale to be treated this way following two in London and one in Copenhagen. (This whale) is more challenging because it is the most sizable (three times the size) at 19.8 m and 2.3 tons and because the oil is now thirty-two years old. Other natural history museums are curious about our project and possible applications.

Tallulah is now being submerged in huge vats of enzymes, which are breaking down the oils and will leave the bones clean and ready to be prepared for display. Stay tuned for updates on this project!