A whale of an exhibit

The skeleton of a blue whale that washed up on Canada’s Atlantic shore 23 years ago will finally move into its permanent home next to the Pacific Ocean this month as the centerpiece of the UBC Beaty Biodiversity Museum — the largest blue whale skeleton to be displayed in Canada and the largest skeleton in the world to be suspended without external support.

The 25-metre-long whale beached and died near the town of Tignish, PEI and was buried on provincial land nearby. With the help and support of the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) and the Government of PEI, UBC assembled a team of marine biologists from both provinces and exhumed the skeleton in May 2008.

Since then, the blue whale skeleton has made its cross-Canada journey and undergone degreasing and cleaning in Victoria, BC and, under the masterful hands of skeleton articulator Michael deRoos, assumed the species’ signature lunge-feeding pose, ready to again inspire wonder and awe.

“Visitors will be amazed by the blue whale’s size,” says Wayne Maddison, museum director and a professor of botany and zoology. “More importantly, the whale will help us tell the story of biodiversity to the public — how the earth’s species are interconnected ecologically and genetically.”

The UBC blue whale skeleton is one of only six such exhibits in North America — the only other Canadian exhibit is also being unveiled at the CMN in Ottawa this summer. Andrew Trites, director of UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit who led the ambitious project, says the process of unearthing the blue whale has also uncovered secrets of the mysterious leviathan.

“Blue whales are the biggest animal to ever live on Earth, bigger than any dinosaurs. Yet we know surprising little about them,” says Trites. “When the whale was exhumed, we were surprised to find that most of its skin, blubber and muscle remained intact after being buried for 20 years.”

While the condition of the whale presented substantially more work in skeleton preparation, it also provided a rare opportunity to examine the bone structure of the whale’s flipper.

“Most blue whale skeletons unearthed so far had been heavily decomposed, so reconstruction of the flipper — which consists of 34 bones and is the most complex structure in a whale’s skeletal system — has been a bit of a guessing game,” says Trites.

With its skin fully intact, Trites and his team were able to perform the first-ever x-ray on a blue whale flipper and use it as a roadmap to reconstructing the exhibit. The UBC blue whale display will therefore be the most accurately assembled in the world.

Trites and Pierre-Yves Daoust, a wild-life pathology professor at University of PEI’s Atlantic Veterinary College and part of the exhumation team, also conducted a CSI-like investigation on the whale’s heavily damaged skull — which has since been replaced with a replica made with fibre glass and plasti-paste.

“Based on the extent and type of damage, we concluded that the whale likely died from a collision with a mid-sized vessel,” says Trites, adding that the most common cause of death for large whales in the wild is interaction with humans.

Even in its untimely death, the blue whale is teaching visitors a valuable lesson: the interconnectedness of all living forms on earth, which happens to be the central theme of the museum and the Biodiversity Research Centre, a research network of more than 50 internationally renowned scientists from multiple departments at UBC.

“The current rate of species extinction is 100 to 1,000 times higher than the normal rate of extinction in earth’s history before humans became a primary contributor to extinctions,” says Sally Otto, director of the Biodiversity Research Centre. “We are losing species faster than we can document them.

“In other words, there are species that have existed and then disappeared on this earth that we will never get to know.”

The challenge this presents is akin to piecing together an incomplete set of jigsaw puzzles, Otto explains. “We may never get a fully complete picture of our world — and how each species, from the largest animal to the tiniest microbe, contributes to that picture.”

That’s why the research centre’s endeavours range from curiosity-driven basic research to conservation policy assessment, answering some of the most fundamental questions while mitigating risks faced by species and ecosystems.

And that’s why the Museum must strike a fine balance between supporting research and educating the public in designing the exhibit of its collection of more than two million specimens — including the second largest fish collection in Canada.

The Beaty Biodiversity Museum is scheduled to commence its school and public programming, including guided tours of select collections, laboratories and exhibits this fall. A celebration of the International Day of Biological Diversity, including public viewing of the whale exhibit, will be held by the Museum on May 22, 2010.

The Museum staff aim to intrigue school children with hands-on experiments that engage all their senses. “Kids of all ages can see, smell and touch whale bones and other specimens, hear stories about their lives in the wild and how they’re connected — down to their DNA — to other living beings,” says Maddison.

“They will also get a sense of what biodiversity researchers do, what sort of questions we’re striving to answer, that will hopefully inspire them to be part of the solution.”

Major funding for the Beaty Biodiversity Centre, which houses the Biodiversity Research Centre and the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, has come from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Government of British Columbia and a gift from UBC alumni Ross and Trisha Beaty.

The Beaty Biodiversity Museum is scheduled to commence its school and public programming, including guided tours of select collections,laboratories and exhibits, this fall. For more information, visit


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Previous official announcements about the Blue Whale Project can be found at:

Media Release | Mar. 3, 2008
Blue Whale Skeleton Finds Permanent Home at BC: Canadian First


Media Release | May 14, 2008
Blue Whale to be Unearthed: “National Treasure” to Embark on Cross-Canada Journey