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Raising the whale

Rocky Harbour blue whale comes home to Memorial

By Michelle Osmond

The majestic blue whale skeleton hangs from the double-height atrium of the Core Science Facility (CSF) as if it were swimming, making visitors feel as if they are watching it from underwater.

The entire 6,500-pound skeleton measures 25 metres long — about two school buses — and is the centerpiece of Memorial’s newest facility; its pose reflecting Memorial’s motto Provehito in Altum, Latin for “launch forth into the deep.”

Watch a time-lapse video of installers Research Casting hoisting the whale into position below.

Preparing the whale

The whale is one of two that washed ashore on the west coast of Newfoundland in 2014 and is believed to be one of nine crushed by heavy sea ice that year.

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), which houses the second skeleton, helped to clean and prepare Memorial’s skeleton for display along with Research Casting Inc. (RCI).

This involved removing the skin, blubber, internal organs and muscles, taking it apart bone-by-bone and placing the skeleton in containers of soil and compost to remove remaining flesh.

The skeleton was then degreased and shipped back to Newfoundland and Labrador.

“There are so many different joints, angles and positions to be aware of. You can’t have too many eyes.” — Kirk Saunders

Matt Fair is RCI’s general manager. He and his team worked with a crew from Rocky Harbour and Trout River.

“We attempted to collect a third skeleton but it was taken back out to sea by the tail end of a hurricane the night before we started to de-flesh it,” Mr. Fair explains.

“The two skeletons we collected were sent to our facility for further cleaning. Preparation, conservation and articulation were also completed at RCI.”

Memorial worked with the ROM to obtain as much information as possible about the whale, including genetic samples to reconstruct its entire genome and analyzing its ear wax to learn more about the chemistry of the marine environment.

The installation

At 30 metres high, the CSF atrium was designed specifically to display the 356 bones.

A generous donation from Mark and Sandra Dobbin, and Craig and Lisa Dobbin, in honour of their late mother, Eleanor “Penney” Dobbin, allowed Memorial to acquire one of the Rocky Harbour whales for display.

On July 27, university leaders, along with members of the provincial and federal governments and members of the Dobbin family, were on hand to unveil the whale’s skull.

At 5.5 metres long, the skull is so large it had to be brought into the building during construction in order to fit.

The installation of the rest of the skeleton took two years of planning, concluded by two weeks of careful and precise assembly.

Access to the lifting points above the skeleton was an ordeal, Mr. Fair says, as was lifting it at six different points sometimes in sync and, other times, individually.

“When we install a monumental mount like this one, they are extra special.” — Matt Fair

Kirk Saunders is the CSF project lead with Memorial’s Facilities Management. He says raising the skeleton into place was complicated.

“There are so many different joints, angles and positions to be aware of,” Mr. Saunders said. “You can’t have too many eyes.”

The skeleton was fitted with a number of hinged joints in the backbone to relieve stress to the internal structure while being raised into place.

“Another challenge was securing a mechanical lift that could fit through the main double-doors and reach up to the atrium ceiling,” Mr. Saunders added.

RCI worked with a local rental company to ship a spider lift from Boston.

A structural engineer designed the lifting points and cables and produced the detail drawings and specifications.

Last year, a team from RCI placed lasers at the planned cable points to confirm the skeleton’s path of travel.

Mr. Fair says it is satisfying work.

“When we install a monumental mount like this one, they are extra special. It makes you think about the number of people that will see and enjoy it for years to come.”

About the blue whale

The blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived and was hunted almost to extinction up until the mid-1900s. The northwest Atlantic blue whale is listed as endangered and is protected under the Species at Risk Act. The total number of blue whales in the northwest Atlantic Ocean population is unknown, but it is estimated that it does not exceed 250 adults.

The Core Science Facility whale skeleton is meant to act as inspiration for the next generation of scientists and researchers, while also highlighting the importance of protecting animals and their ecosystems.

About the Core Science Facility

The Core Science Facility will provide modern and collaborative research and laboratory teaching spaces primarily for the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.

The global project budget is $325 million. Memorial contributed $200 million. The Government of Canada, through its New Building Canada Fund, provided support of $99.9 million with the remaining $25.1 million being provided from the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador through the Hebron Project settlement.

Construction of the Core Science Facility, which is scheduled to open in September, began in 2015. It is the university’s biggest infrastructure project for the St. John’s campus since 1961.

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