This is one of the larger, if not the largest, whale bone collections on the island portion of our province. I don’t know what’s in Labrador. This collection is housed in the MUSEUM OF WHALES AND THINGS, adjacent to my studio. The museum was opened seasonally for six years but closed it’s doors in 2006.
I always had it in the back of my mind that someday I would like to skin a dead whale and mount it’s bones. Courses in palaeontology while working on a degree in Geology at Memorial University of Newfoundland first sparked my interest. In 1998 I got the opportunity. To most people, a dead half-rotten stinky sperm whale stirred little interest; for me it was a chance to recover and assemble the bones of a modern day dinosaur, a modern day monster of the deep.
Early July in the year of 1998, a 46 foot male sperm whale washed ashore in Gargamelle Bay, just 3 kilometres outside of Port Au Choix, my hometown. Apparently it had been dead for months, floating around in the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence before washing up on the beach. It’s dark grey skin was well bleached out, giving it the appearance of a Moby Dick from a distance. Up close, the smell was distinct and strong. Just three years earlier, another male sperm whale had beached and died just one kilometre down the shore during a late fall storm. This one was pushed back to sea , using heavy equipment, and floated away.
Within a day or two of the dead whale washing ashore, towns folks began to complain about the smell coming from the dead whale carcass, although it was some 3 kilometres away. Before council took any action to dispose of the whale, I approached them on behalf of the local heritage committee to put claims on the whale for the purpose of skinning and recovering the skeleton and set it up to attract tourist to our town. What started out as a cooperative approach in recovering the skeleton, would soon turn into a one man crusade.
July 15, 1998 was the date set to commence the sperm whale skinning. In the beginning, some local businesses donated supplies and a few locals would donate their time. That morning the whale was dissected from nose to tail and huge chunks of blubber and meat was cut away to expose the bones. We took a break at noon and most of the volunteers made their way home, never to return. Afternoon, we continued with the skinning until the tide came in, making it impossible for us to proceed any further. Day one had come to an end. We were exhausted. The job was only half done.
On day two, I returned to the scene of the half-skinned whale, accompanied by a back-digger on loan from the local town council of Port Au Choix. The plan now was to tear up the half-skinned whale into 3 smaller pieces and move it to a clean secure area above the high tide mark so it could be worked on. Once the bucket on the back-digger began to tear at the blubber and meat, it was soon realized that the majority of the bones were loose; they had become detached from the meat and muscle because the whale had been dead for a long time. This unforeseen condition proved to be advantageous in recovering the bones. Most of the large bones were plucked and shook free using a rope attached to the bucket on the back-digger.
Some four hours later, the smelly greasy bones had been recovered and relocated to a clean secure spot, just above high water mark. The unwanted, the blubber, meat, guts and huge head was disposed of by digging a huge hole on the sandy beach using the back-digger, tossing it all in and covering it over with sand and gravel. By day’s end, a huge pile of greasy smelly bones comprising mainly of vertebrates, ribs, disc, skull, jaw and flipper bones was all that was remaining of a 40 ton whale. The skeleton of a whale only makes up 15% of the whale’s total body weight. Day two came to a close.
For the remainder of that summer, fall and winter the whale skeleton remained at the beach location. Mother nature was left with doing her part of riding the bones of the remaining meat and strong distinct smell.
Early spring of 1999, I returned to the scene of the now naked sperm whale. Upon close observation, I soon realized that some of the bones had gone missing. To where I did not know. Maybe they were buried by mistake with the unwanted or just maybe they were taken by humans. To save the skeleton, I relocated it to a more secure location, outback at my studio. Throughout the summer and fall of 1999, only on cold low temperature days mind you, I cleaned the bones of any remaining grizzle and dry flesh and spread them out on the ground to dry.
I soon realized that it would take mother nature 5 to 10 years to bleach and dry the bones to make them suitable for display. I decided to give her a hand. I would boil the bones to help remove the grease and smell before spreading them out to dry. I had done it with other whalebones before. It had worked.
With a modified 200 gallon oil heating tank and an old green bathtub, The Big Boil began. Sunlight detergent, Javex, and Lestoil solvents was added to the water in the tubs to help break down the oils in the bones and help eliminate the smell. Four days of continuous flame beneath the tank and tub, a total of 8 boil-ups, half a day each, to complete this stage of the project. Once boiled, the bones were spread out on top of my studio to lie in the sun to dry and bleach out. All the bones except the huge skull bone and the upper jaw bones received the same treatment. Those were too large to boil but mother nature has since dried and bleached them well. Throughout the winter, spring and summer of 2000, the bones sat on top of the roof where mother nature did her job.
Finally, in the fall of 2000, a building was constructed to house the skeletal remains of the 46 foot long male sperm whale, a relative of Moby Dick It was set up to help tourist and locals alike to understand and appreciate one of the most fascinating mammals in the animal kingdom; the one with the largest head, the one with the biggest nose, the one with the largest teeth and the one with the biggest brain; the sperm whale.