Ever wonder what a dead blue whale smells like?
A Fossil wrist watch that Mark Engstrom wore as he helped preserve the bones of Blue, a 24-metre female whose skeleton goes on display Saturday at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, will give you an idea.
"It's this kind of permeating, oily smell that's as much of a taste as it is a smell," said Engstrom, the deputy director of collections and research at the ROM.
Engstrom gave lectures after the blue whale was recovered in May 2014 from a beach in western Newfoundland. People would line up for a whiff of his stinking watch, he recalled in an interview.
The timepiece will now be on display "in full, smelly glory" as part of the exhibit, he said with a laugh.
Blue's 350-bone skeleton can be viewed until Labour Day. Her skull measures nine metres on its own and researchers figure she weighed about 90 metric tonnes.
The ROM, on Toronto's tony Bloor Street, is a long way from the scenic stretch of Newfoundland coast where she washed up almost three years ago, making global headlines as officials wrangled over who was responsible for a sad cleanup job.
There were also worries – swiftly discounted by experts – that the buildup of internal methane could make her explode, raining blubbery chunks down on a prime tourist region.
Blue's massive carcass beached at Trout River, N.L., while another landed in nearby Rocky Harbour. Both towns border western Newfoundland's spectacular Gros Morne National Park.
They were among nine of the endangered species, the largest animals by weight on Earth, to surface dead in heavy pack ice in April 2014.
Just Blue and another female were recovered. The latter is still in preservation stages before her skeleton heads to Memorial University of Newfoundland.
It took 10 people five days to dismember Blue. Her bones were stripped of blubber and trucked back to Trenton, Ont., in two 18-wheelers. After that, it took about nine months to compost the bones in enough cow manure to fill two 15-metre truck containers, mixed with sawdust, to remove remaining flesh.
Several more months of de-greasing followed, to rinse oil from the bones with detergent.
The numbered pieces can now be put back together for display in about three days, Engstrom said.
"It was definitely a tragic story to lose nine of them," he said of the mysterious deaths. Blue whales in the western North Atlantic are still extremely rare since they were decimated before whaling stopped in the 1960s.
Remaining numbers for that population are estimated at just 200 to 400.
"But what we're going to gain is learning, both in our DNA studies and, even more so, bringing to the attention of the public the conservation issues that blue whales are facing," Engstrom said.
They include ocean contaminants, noise pollution which hampers intricate communication, and ship traffic in their main habitat between Cape Breton and Newfoundland.
Engstrom said there are just two other places in Canada to see similar blue whale exhibits, the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.
It's not clear what killed Blue and the eight other whales.
"The two skulls that we have were damaged," said Burton Lim, assistant curator of mammalogy at the ROM. But it's not certain if thick pack ice fatally crushed the whales or if that damage happened after they died from some other cause, he said in an interview.
Their deaths will, however, contribute to understanding of a species that scientists have had relatively few chances to study.
"We'll be sequencing the complete genome – so all of the DNA that's found in a blue whale," Lim said. "That's never been done before.
"These particular samples that we got from Newfoundland will be very important baseline data for future research into not only the evolution of whales, but also their conservation."
Preliminary tests confirmed the two recovered females did not have the same mother, he added. It's hoped more study and perhaps future samples will help answer questions about why population numbers in the western North Atlantic have not grown as elsewhere.
Worldwide, it's estimated there are about 20,000 blue whales – still way down from around 300,000 in the 1800s before whaling took its toll, Lim said.
Full grown adults don't have natural predators, although young ones may be prey for killer whales or sharks, he said.
"The blue whale can be a flagship species. If we can bring blue whales back to the pre-whaling numbers, we'll ... also save the ocean habitat for other species to be able to survive and live."