Take a stroll through the New Brunswick Museum Collections and Research Centre on Saint John's Douglas Avenue and you'll be greeted with artifacts from the ocean's dark abyss that appear almost otherworldly.
In the museum's basement, whale jawbones, skulls, vertebrae and even the odd baseball-sized pickled eyeball are kept in storage.
But the museum's wide variety of whale remains, which make up one of the largest collections of marine mammals in Canada, don't just make for cool Halloween decorations.
Don McAlpine, head of the zoology department, said the collection is used by researchers trying to ensure the survival of at-risk species.
"We hope that a collection like this can play a role in the conservation of these whales and that they won't become more rare," McAlpine told Information Morning in Saint John.
Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the direction many whale species are headed, he said.
Last year, 10 of the endangered North Atlantic right whales were found dead in Canadian and United States water.
McAlpine said one of the biggest problems facing the North Atlantic right whale, just one whale species kept in the collection, is they're an inshore species competing for space with humans and ships.
There are around 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining in the world.
"In the meantime, it's really important to continue to collect this material because we need to be able to learn as much as we can about these animals to develop the correct policy," McAlpine said.
Remains used for wide variety of purposes
The zoologist said the collection is used for a wide variety of scientific purposes.
People have extracted DNA from the skeletons with drills, used bones to reconstruct whale anatomy and studied a specimen's stable isotopes — useful for determining a creature's diet and migratory patterns.
When a new sample comes in, one problem the staff often faces is how to clean it.
While there's no one-size-fits-all solution, McAlpine said the Douglas Avenue location found itself in hot water with its neighbours over one of its methods: the team used flamethrowers to boil the up to 30-feet-long whale carcasses in large tanks behind the buildings.
"To be honest, we did get some people on the street complaining about the smell," McAlpine said.
So they began boiling at night and staff tried lessening the smell by adding cleaning detergents to the mix, "but all we got was the smell of dead whales mixed with detergents," he said.
"It didn't mask very much."
The zoologist said it's not always possible to preserve a dead whale in its entirety. Staff have since moved away from the flamethrower method and now use compost to clean skeletons.
New Brunswick Museum's staff often need to decide what specific parts of the mammal they'd like to preserve.
The researchers almost always try to save some segment of bone, even if preserving the whole skeleton isn't pragmatic.
"If it's a tooth whale, we would try to save teeth because that's one way we have of aging a whale," McAlpine said. "If it's a baleen whale, we'll try to get baleen."
The museum also tries to freeze some amount of tissue, which can be used later for DNA testing or toxicology.
"The bone will last longer than the tissue and it can be used over and over," McAlpine said.
"The tissue is saved in a freezer of minus 80 degrees. So, there's always some risk at some point you really have a problem with your freezer and you'll potentially lose some of that tissue."
Collections 'support academic research'
Although most people have walked through the New Brunswick Museum's Market Square location, not as many people have seen the back end of the institution.
The research curator called collections the heart and soul of any museum, even if they're not what's currently on display.
"Those collections – whether it's a collection of whales, or fine art, or history, what have you – support academic research," he said.
McAlpine wants people to understand the important research function their local museum plays and that the painstaking work done to preserve the past is also used to protect the future.
"It may be that in the future, the only place you're going to see a right whale is in a museum," McAlpine said. "I hope it doesn't come to that, but that could be what happens."