The Cycle of Life

For the first time since moving to OrcaLab for the summer, I had an opportunity so awesome that it legitimized abandoning my post in the Lab for a few hours.

Last night, messages came in telling us about the deceased, juvenile male humpback that was to be cleaned today for the Whale Interpretive Centre, (WIC), in Telegraph Cove. Weather reports looked bleak and after a late night of following worsening reports we went to sleep with the smallest glimmer of hope that the morning might bring us an adventure.

The weather reports were wrong.  I woke up early this morning above the Lab to a glassy, calm sea and not even the faintest breeze in the air.  Things were looking good.  So, after scrounging together some clothes, which would not be missed, and eating a quick breakfast of trail mix we set off towards Bauza Cove to help dismantle a whale.

It was immediately obvious that things had started on time as we pulled up to the cove.  I could see about 20 yellow and black rain gear clad bodies scattered around a 30 ft. carcass.  Two people were holding back large sections of blubber with hooks while another two carved away the blubber from the humpback’s shoulders with curved, rusted blades attached to poles like hockey sticks.

Upon seeing the carcass, my first thought was that I had forgotten to put scented Blistex under my nose to mask the smell.  I gingerly climbed out of the boat half expecting an onslaught of nauseating smell to blow me backward as I landed on the beach 20 feet away from the whale.  But alas, that moment was yet to come.  Relieved at the lack of smell, I hurried over to the humpback to get a better look at what was happening and to see how I could help.

One person, assisting on her day off from Stubbs Whale Watching, immediately recognized me from school and directed me to the last pair of dish gloves.  Impressed by the preparedness of the WIC team (dish gloves was one of the many things I hadn’t thought to bring), I excitedly pulled on the gloves.  Just then someone called out, “can we get someone with gloves over here?”.  Seeing my chance to get in on the action, I quickly made my way around the whale.

Jim Borrowman had just finished removing a pectoral fin from the carcass and needed it moved.  The fin was slippery and far heavier than I had imagined it would be, with a ball the size of my head on the end from the shoulder joint.  It took six of us to move the fin out of the way.

Jim attempting to remove the pectoral joint
A grand example of community support


It was at this point that I was given more details about what I was looking at.  The WIC was planning on keeping the skeleton and the plan was to clean it up the easiest way possible.  We were to cut the whale into bony and non-bony sections.  The bony sections would be placed in barrels and sunk in Johnstone Strait for a few years, so that the local marine life could clean the bones by eating away the flesh.  I was beginning to occasionally catch wind of the putrid smell wafting off the whale carcass. Thinking to myself that it was…gross but doable…I got to work on halving the pectoral fin while one of the assistants told me about how the smell would only get worse. With some difficulty and a few trial cuts ending abruptly at solid bone I managed to use a kitchen knife, dulled from use on the tough skin and muscle of the whale, to cut off the lower end of the fin.

Having completed that task, I made my way up the hill with most of the team towards a truck filled with provisions.  Mary Borrowman had just dropped off fresh coffee, hot chocolate and home made muffins. There’s nothing like hot chocolate and muffins after an hour of slicing through putrid whale parts in the rain.

After some laughs and break time antics we all missioned back down to continue the task at hand.  My new job was to cut holes in chunks of skin and blubber so that we could string them together, and pull them out to sea without staining the boat with oil and stench.

This was my moment of smelly glory.  It took two hands and all the force I had within me to push the knife from one side of the chunk to the other, and, as it bubbled and squelched and occasionally squirted, the most ungodly smell I have ever had the misfortune of smelling was carried to my nose by the rising winds.  It topped the bird and seal colonies of the Chain Islands.  It topped dissected squirrels.  It even topped my roommate’s weeks-old compost.  There are few things that foul I have ever smelled and I sincerely hope I never encounter the smell that tops this.

After a few hours of hard labour and slow progress cutting holes through the blubber chunks, someone relieved me of my duties and I got to see some really neat stuff.  The baleen came off the upper jaw in huge, accordion-like, pieces stuck together at the top with beautifully intricate patterning of flesh and holes.  I assume these holes were either the spaces between the baleen or perhaps spots for connective tissue.  I watched as the blubber chunks, strung together with rope, were dragged down the beach toward the water, jiggling like enormous misshapen jellyfish.  When the swollen tongue was finally cut from the carcass, I got to see the inch wide arteries running through the tissue.  When pushed the relaxed muscle moved like jell-o, but I could feel how tough and strong that muscle had been.

I thought about what this poor whale must have been through before his untimely death as one of the assistants spoke to how strange it is that this once grand, mysterious creature of the sea was now just anatomical parts.  I thought about how life just seems to go that way. Everything has it’s time, and when it’s gone something or someone makes parts of it for use by plants or creatures still living.  We are all connected by this circle of life and death. We use the dead to fuel our lives and our deaths fuel the lives of others.  From insects to trees, grasses to fishes, humans to whales, we are all a part of this flow of energy.  Like this little whale we will come to the point where our borrowed energy is no longer ours, and it will be added back into the cycles of this thing we call life.

Back at the Lab, I look out over the grey waters under bleak skies at the joyful meeting of a few familiar humpbacks still living, and contemplate how interconnected we really are.

Written by Kristen Kanes; Biology student at University of Victoria

Note:  Unfortunately, this juvenile male humpback died from starvation caused by entanglement in fishing gear.  Fortunately, his skeleton will be preserved and used for educational purposes at the Whale Interpretive Centre.

Please visit ‘The Marine Detective’s’ blog for more information about this tragedy. ‘When a Giant Falls and People Care’

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