The remains of the carcass of an endangered blue whale that washed ashore on a popular Nova Scotia beach earlier this month will undergo examination to learn more about the massive marine animal.
"It's a fantastic opportunity we were given to collect research and valuable information," Danielle Pinder, the response co-ordinator with the Marine Animal Response Society, told CBC Radio's Mainstreet on Tuesday.
"But at the same time, it's so sad and hard to wrap your head around, working on this type of animal and it's dead. It's not a situation you want to encounter, unfortunately."
The dead whale was found on the rocks of Crystal Crescent Beach in Sambro Creek, N.S., on Sept. 9 after winds from Hurricane Larry swept it ashore.
Blue whales are protected under the federal Species at Risk Act. Although the total number of blue whales in the northwest Atlantic is not known, there are believed to be about 250 adults remaining.
The Marine Animal Response Society was tasked with removing the carcass from the area last week.
"When we get these calls about large whales dead or injured, our hearts immediately just [sink]," Pinder said. "It's not a call we want to get, especially with endangered animals like blue whales."
Pinder said the 30-metre mature female — roughly the length of two school buses — was situated on a rocky section of Crystal Crescent's third beach and had to be moved before it could be accessed by the response team.
"Where it washed up was just logistically too complicated to do any kind of work on the whale. There were a lot of rocks. It was slippery," she said.
Crews from the Department of Lands and Forestry were called in with excavators to move the massive whale closer to the parking lot so it could be worked on.
Pinder said unfortunately, a necropsy couldn't be performed to determine its cause of death because the animal had already started decomposing and its internal organs had been significantly damaged in the storm.
Instead, samples of skin, blubber, baleen and an eyeball nearly the size of a human hand were extracted from the animal over a two-day process.
"We collected as much as we could externally for our research partners and for our vet colleagues, so hopefully we can glean a little bit more [information] about this whale," she said.
Now, vet pathologists and blue whale researchers around Atlantic Canada will be able to study how the whale lived and possibly died.
"There is definitely some research that we will hopefully be gaining on this individual with the samples we've collected," Pinder said.
She said researchers will conduct hormone analysis to look at stress levels of the whale and determine if she had calves during her life, genetic sampling could identify the animal and stable isotope analysis could determine if any infections or stressors contributed to the animal's health.
Pinder said the bones of the animal were also removed at the request of Research Casting International, a group in Ontario that provides specimen restoration, casting and mounting for museum displays.
Their hope is to thoroughly clean the bones, cast them and then eventually have them displayed in a museum.
Critical work, but funding is sparse
Pinder said the work the Marine Animal Response Society does is critical, but it's also "insanely expensive."
The independent organization relies on grants, donations and contracts from federal or provincial departments.
She said oftentimes, funding is sparse and the society is unable to investigate when a deceased marine animal washes ashore and could be examined.
"There's just not resources available and we're missing vital opportunities to collect valuable data for our species conservation and just understanding the overall ecosystem health and impacts to these animals," she said.
This time, however, she was happy the society was able to work on the animal and learn from it.
"The blue whale is endangered, and we've got a lot of species that could be at risk for extinction if we don't work hard now to figure out what is causing these deaths and how to fix them."
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