Jeremy and the blue whales: An attack on my olfactory system

1 / 4
Jeremy and the blue whales: An attack on my olfactory system

I am, arguably, one of the best dead whale reporters in the country.

This is a self-proclaimed title "earned" from covering two blue whale flensings back in the spring of 2014.

Less than three years later, I got the chance to come face to face with the whales that gave me one of the best stories I have ever done.

It took a lot of work for the Royal Ontario Museum to get the bones of the blue whale on display, and I had the opportunity to tell that story.

It took a lot less time and effort for me to get to Toronto, but I figured I could use this chance to tell you that story. 

When the story broke, I happened to be in Toronto for a visit and got to see pictures of the bloated, floating blue whale from a distance. I have to admit I was jealous that I was missing out on this story. 

Welcome to a massive, incredible mess

A long plane ride, a drive from Deer Lake to Corner Brook then to Woody Point and 36 hours later, I pulled up to a small slipway.

I got out of the CBC truck and walked towards the massive mess of the blue whale flensing project.

I made it about 10 feet before the wind picked up and the smell hit me harder than the -45 C winter days in Labrador City.

I made a beeline behind a trailer and promptly said a less than fond farewell to the breakfast I had eaten a few hours before.

I walked straight back to my vehicle, slammed the door and called my producer.

I used less-than-appropriate language in the actual conversation, but the PG-13 version went something like this: "It smells freaking terrible, but this is going to be freaking awesome."

The beauty of western Newfoundland served as a backdrop to one of the biggest science projects that onlookers braving the stench got to see on several cool, crisp days in May.

The slipway the Royal Ontario Museum used flooded with blood and the insides of the world's biggest animal as the flensing took place.

Crews removed the bones — one by one — during a smelly week in shadows of one of the most scenic places in the country.

We're all friends knee-deep in whale guts

I spent a few hours filming the two blue whale flensing projects, but for the people knee-deep in disgusting whale remains, they remained upbeat and positive.

Smiling, joking and carrying on as an honest day's work happened in front of my unsettled stomach.

The crew took great delight in calling me out as being a lightweight townie. Staring into the meaty mess in front of me, I never verbally fought back but I certainly questioned my choice of profession more than once.

To be honest, I got a 50 per cent in high school biology. Science never did become the strong suit my parents had hoped it would.

Still, I've never gotten this close to an endangered animal before. In fact, I got so close to this blue whale that my rubber boots needed to be washed off in the ocean before packing them up in the trunk of the CBC truck.

Once in the truck, I had to make the 90-minute drive back into Corner Brook with the windows down to avoid stinking out the SUV CBC Corner Brook staff shared.

Back at the office I was quickly told to get the entire outfit I had been wearing outside as the smell began to infiltrate the workplace.

When I got home, my better half advised me the jeans, hoodie and boots I wore were to live outside for the rest of our time together. They now sit in a landfill somewhere. 

Tragedy strikes my favourite hoodie

As I commuted to and from Woody Point for a few days the team from the ROM and its hired help worked long hours dissecting the whale.

It wasn't easy work, but the team smiled under the spring sun as it cut away hundreds of tonnes of flesh from blue whale. I stood, with my Sony camera in one hand, a little less cheerful.

In the midst of what looked like a Dexter lab on a concrete slipway I lost my footing. I grabbed the wooden walls which hadn't been spared the blood, guts and gore of the dead blue whale.

My CBC hoodie, worn more times than I would ever admit, got infected with whale gut splatter.

In my standup — the part of the news where the reporter wants to make sure everyone knows s/he is actually there — you can see me looking less than happy.

The effect of the stains would never leave my hoodie. Putting something covered in whale guts into the washing machine wasn't an option.

Whales move on; I never did

With both blue whales deboned and shipped off to Ontario to be buried in compost, the story ended for most. Not me.

Over the next few years, I would call the ROM's Mark Engstrom for updates. We would chat about the whale and how the progress was going on the project. 

He kindly did interviews every few months to keep our audiences posted on the progress of the massive project. 

I began pushing for the CBC to send me to the big reveal of the blue whale bones — about two years ago. First as a joke, but as the calendar flipped foward to 2017, my emails took on a more serious tone.

About two weeks ago, I got the go-ahead to travel to Toronto to take in the exclusive media opening.

Due to the Canadian Screen Awards and a giant mining convention I found myself crashing at my mate Steve's place and then sharing a hotel room with Ryan Snoddon. 

The plan was to do some live hits into Here & Now from the blue whale exhibit Tuesday and Wednesday. We got an advanced tour and then ROM staff let me and videographer Grant Linton hang out with the whale as we were waiting for our time to shine. 

For about two hours I got to sit under the massive whale skeleton in the dimly lit exhibit, alone with my thoughts.

A humbling experience

Blue lights flickered over the whale to simulate the sense of being underwater. I won't lie to you, it's a humbling experience to be close to the largest animal on the planet.

Its sheer size is incredible as my six-foot, 200 pound frame looked tiny in comparison — according to interactive parts of the exhibit, the whale weighs about 944 times more than I do. 

Everyone from the ROM staff to my bosses in St. John's to CBC News Network hosts asked, "How did it feel to finally see it?"

As reporters we often do stories and then leave them behind. We interview amazing people who open up to us and we do our best to tell their stories.

Not very often do we follow stories around for three years. I've spent more time on talking about this blue whale than anything else I have done.

How does it feel? 

Incredible.

Incredible to see it, and it is a fantastic story to tell, but after a week of talking about it, it's time to move on. For all of us; if the ROM has its way, the blue whale exhibit will move around the country.

It's an exhibit that I hope Newfoundlanders and Labradorians get to see, I just got lucky and got an early peak. 

But fear not blue whale watchers, Memorial University estimates it will have the other whale, the one from Rocky Harbour, on display in the yet-to-be-built core science building in St. John's by 2020.

Then, I am sure, it will be wall-to-wall blue whale coverage all over again.