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Royal Ontario Museum to help preserve skeletons of Newfoundland beached whales

A rotting blue whale carcass sits on the shore in Trout River, N.L., on Sunday, April 27, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - NTV News, Don Bradshaw

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A rotting blue whale carcass sits on the shore in Trout River, N.L., on Sunday, April 27, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - NTV News, Don Bradshaw

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - The deaths of endangered blue whales off Newfoundland are a tragic loss but also a rare chance to study the world's largest animal, says the head of the Royal Ontario Museum team that will handle their two carcasses.

"We wish it hadn't happened," Mark Engstrom, deputy director of collections and research for the museum, said Thursday from Toronto. "But this is an incredible opportunity to see one and to work with one."

Engstrom is not, incidentally, worried that the massive corpses that washed ashore on Newfoundland's west coast will explode.

"I think the concerns about that have been overblown — no pun intended," he said. "It will simply deflate."

Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea announced Thursday that the museum researchers will preserve the two skeletons and collect tissue samples.

It's believed nine of the giant whales, which can reach lengths of 30 metres and weigh up to 180 tonnes, were crushed in thick sea ice last month. Two of the massive bodies beached in the small west coast communities of Trout River and Rocky Harbour near Gros Morne National Park.

Town officials appealed for help with the huge and costly job of removing the carcasses. They raised concerns that the rotting whales pose health hazards and could drive away tourists if left to decompose.

Engstrom said a team of at least 10 assembled by the museum will head to Newfoundland next week. He said they'll use flensing knives to cut through the skin, blubber and skeletal muscles of the two carcasses before dismantling the skeletons.

Flesh and blubber will be disposed of in local dumps, Engstrom said. The bones will be packed into large containers and driven back to Ontario using at least 18-wheel trucks, he added.

The operation is being funded by the museum and will cost tens of thousands of dollars, Engstrom said. He figures it will take at least two weeks once work begins.

Engstrom in the past has helped salvage the remains of a right whale, a fin whale, a sperm whale, a humpback and a killer whale.

"It's a lot of very smelly work. There's nothing that smells worse than a dead whale. They don't smell good to begin with and these have been dead awhile."

Engstrom said tissue samples will be preserved for DNA study and the skeletons will be available to scientists from around the world.

One of the skeletons could ultimately be displayed at the museum if funds are available, he added.

Northwestern Atlantic blue whales are listed as endangered with a population estimated at just 250 before the nine known deaths.

Walter Nicolle, mayor of Rocky Harbour, is relieved to see someone step up. The federal Fisheries Department had said earlier in the week that the carcasses are above the high water mark and therefore provincial responsibility.

"We're only a small town," Nicolle said in an interview. "We don't have a budget large enough to take care of that whale."

Nicolle said a steady stream of visitors has arrived for photos with the carcass as concerns about potential eruptions due to internal methane gas buildup made international headlines.

"If it were to stay there for much longer it would stink up the whole community, I would say."

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