The Pol­i­tics of Rot­ting Blub­ber

Even in an age of global warm­ing, a dead whale is some­times just a dead whale

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Si­mon Lewsen

Even in an age of global warm­ing, a dead whale is some­times just a dead whale

Be­fore she was fa­mous, Blue was dead. In the spring of 2014, in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, a shift in the winds trapped a pod of blue whales un­der the ice, and she was one of nine to per­ish. In late April, her twenty-four-me­tre-long corpse washed up on the shore of Trout River, New­found­land. When an­other mem­ber of her pod turned up at the nearby vil­lage of Rocky Har­bour, in­ter­net ru­mours spread fear that the whales could spon­ta­neously ex­plode. The me­dia erupted: “What Do We Do with This Whale?” ( The New Yorker), “Could Whales Ex­plode in Cana­dian Towns?” (CNN), and “Beached Dead Whale Stinks Up Town in New­found­land,” (As­so­ci­ated Press). Satur­day Night Live aired a hammy sketch about a beach­side ro­mance gone wrong: it be­gins with a ukulele bal­lad and ends in a mess of guts and blub­ber.

Mark Engstrom, a se­nior cu­ra­tor and deputy direc­tor at Toronto’s Royal On­tario Mu­seum, had been work­ing for four­teen years to build a col­lec­tion of whales that in­habit Cana­dian wa­ters. He already had the skele­tons of a sperm whale and a hump­back, but a blue whale — the world’s largest an­i­mal — would be the ul­ti­mate ac­qui­si­tion. On May 8, he and a group of tech­ni­cians ar­rived in New­found­land to har­vest Blue’s bones with a set of spe­cially made flens­ing knives. Engstrom’s work at the ROM often re­quires him to wear a blazer, but he’s hap­pi­est when knee-deep in guts. “I’m a mam­mol­o­gist,” he says. “For me, this is the best part of the job.”

The ROM team, dressed in chest waders, rain jack­ets, and heavy-duty rub­ber gloves, be­gan cut­ting into Blue’s body, peel­ing back the skin, and re­mov­ing lay­ers of blub­ber, mus­cle, and in­nards. The team sent six truck­loads of rot­ting flesh — which one cu­ra­tor re­ferred to as “mushy, al­most cheesy”— to a nearby dump, and packed the bones in ship­ping con­tain­ers bound for On­tario.

This March, the ROM will open Out of the Depths: The Blue Whale Story, fea­tur­ing Blue’s pre­served skele­ton, which will later be joined by the world’s first plas­ti­nated blue whale heart. A suc­cess­ful mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion needs both a com­pelling spec­i­men and a strong story, and in Blue, Engstrom had both. Har­vest­ing the hulk­ing, dis­tended body was one thing; telling its story is an­other. To do that, the cu­ra­tors con­fronted tricky ques­tions — about de­liv­er­ing a mes­sage of con­ser­va­tion with­out be­ing crassly po­lit­i­cal, and about the role of nat­u­ral-his­tory mu­se­ums in our eco­log­i­cally trou­bled mo­ment.

Last Septem­ber, at a ware­house in Tren­ton, On­tario, tech­ni­cians dug up Blue’s bones (they had been buried in com­post for a year so that bac­te­ria would eat the re­main­ing flesh) and sub­jected the spec­i­mens to de­ter­gent baths.

Whale bones are difficult to clean: they’re as por­ous as sea sponges and as oily as hush pup­pies.

Nearby, a half- com­plete T. Rex skele­ton looks pa­thetic rel­a­tive to Blue’s. The whale’s ver­te­brae re­sem­ble the pro­pel­lers of a cruise ship; her mandibles are like dag­gers that could slay Godzilla; and her skull, which re­quires a fork­lift and crane to move, is com­pa­ra­ble in size and weight to a pickup truck. And the odour, even though the whale has been re­lieved of its flesh, is a dark an­i­mal musk — the smell of death writ large.

For more than a cen­tury, the cu­ri­ous were will­ing to brave that smell for the chance to get close to a cetacean. Whales were myth­i­cal crea­tures that also hap­pened to ex­ist. In 1903, in prepa­ra­tion for the St. Louis World’s Fair, work­ers from the Smith­so­nian trav­elled to Her­mitage Bay, New­found­land, to cast the body of a twenty-four-me­tre blue whale in plas­ter as it de­com­posed. In post­war Europe, thrill-seek­ers flocked to see Her­cules, Goliath, and Jonah, three Nor­we­gian fin whales ca­su­ally pre­served in formalde­hyde and trucked from town to town. The tour ended when the bod­ies be­came too pu­trid to dis­play.

Our ea­ger­ness to marvel at whales was ri­valled only by our de­sire to kill them. In the nine­teenth cen­tury, oil ex­tracted from blub­ber lit lamps and greased hy­draulic pumps, and their baleen plates lined corsets. By the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, petroleum and poly­mers were mak­ing whale prod­ucts ob­so­lete. And yet, thanks to the ex­plod­ing har­poon and the ad­vent of faster ships, we’d fi­nally fig­ured out how to slaugh­ter blue whales en masse — so we kept do­ing it.

The prac­tice was cat­a­strophic for the species. The global pop­u­la­tion of blue whales once num­bered in the hun­dreds of thou­sands, but by 1966, when the In­ter­na­tional Whal­ing Com­mis­sion in­tro­duced a hunt­ing ban, it had been pushed to near ex­tinc­tion. “Next to the bi­son, there was never a big­ger slaugh­ter of a sin­gle species,” says Dave Ire­land, man­ag­ing direc­tor of bio­di­ver­sity at the ROM . In the north­west Atlantic, for a rea­son not yet iden­ti­fied, the blue whale pop­u­la­tion has fallen to roughly 200, and it isn’t grow­ing. Ac­cord­ing to that es­ti­mate, the 2014 freeze in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence wiped out nearly 5 per­cent of an already im­per­illed pop­u­la­tion.

That dev­as­tat­ing event is where the ROM ’s cu­ra­to­rial nar­ra­tive be­gins. From the out­set, the cu­ra­tors un­der­stood that, how­ever they told their story, Blue must be the main char­ac­ter. While plan­ning ex­hi­bi­tions, the mu­seum tests its themes in fo­cus-group meet­ings. The first con­sul­ta­tion sent a clear mes­sage. “Peo­ple felt very strongly that this ex­hi­bi­tion shouldn’t be about a blue whale but rather this blue whale,” says Court­ney Murfin, the mu­seum’s in­ter­pre­tive plan­ner. “We needed to em­pha­size that this is the same whale you fell in love with three years ago.”

Pa­trons will en­ter the ex­hi­bi­tion through an an­techam­ber, in which in­for­ma­tional pan­els and news footage will re­con­struct the 2014 die-off and the me­dia cir­cus that fol­lowed. Then, in the main space, they’ll meet Blue. The de­ci­sion to fo­cus on Blue led to two tricky ques­tions. First, should the ex­hi­bi­tion delve into the gritty de­tails of the bone har­vest? In the past, the in­sti­tu­tion’s fam­ily-friendly man­date dis­cour­aged graphic dis­plays, but ev­i­dence shows that icky sub­ject mat­ter goes over well with pa­trons. A time-lapse video of a de­com­pos­ing fox is among the most-watched au­dio­vi­sual pieces in the mu­seum.

And so the team dou­bled down on all things vis­ceral: pa­trons won’t just see the bone har­vest, they’ll also smell it, per­haps by get­ting close to an ar­ti­cle of cloth­ing or a watch that the tech­ni­cians wore while cut­ting up Blue’s body. They’ll stand along­side an illustration of a blue whale pe­nis, and ex­am­ine a jar of blue whale fe­ces — pre­sented with an ex­pla­na­tion of its im­por­tance to ocean ecol­ogy.

The sec­ond cu­ra­to­rial ques­tion was more fraught: How do you tell the story of Blue’s death when the un­der­ly­ing cause is hazy? We know that blue whales — along with rights, minkes, and hump­backs — en­ter the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to feed. The 2013/2014 win­ter was so cold that most of the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Se­away froze over. Af­ter the whales en­tered the gulf, ice was blown east to­ward the New­found­land coast, crush­ing or drown­ing them be­fore they could es­cape.

The con­nec­tions with cli­mate change and en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion are ten­able, if not en­tirely clear. It’s pos­si­ble that ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion—a process that’s bound up with global warm­ing—is un­der­min­ing blue whales’ food sup­ply, and in turn un­der­min­ing the health of the north­west

Atlantic pod. Then there’s the mat­ter of pop­u­la­tion growth. Blue whale mat­ing habits are ob­scure—the an­i­mals flirt over sev­eral hun­dred kilo­me­tres and mate some­where far out to sea—so we don’t know why north­west Atlantic whales aren’t calv­ing. Per­haps noise from ships is in­ter­fer­ing with long-range mat­ing sig­nals. Ire­land ac­knowl­edges that the 2014 die-off might have re­sulted from a freak weather event and noth­ing more. Then again, freak weather events are alarm­ingly com­mon th­ese days.

Engstrom, how­ever, ar­gues that there isn’t enough ev­i­dence to make the cli­mate change ar­gu­ment work. “I had to tell my team that this par­tic­u­lar ex­hi­bi­tion isn’t about global warm­ing,” he says. He wor­ries that cli­mate change is be­com­ing an easy nar­ra­tive that cu­ra­tors ex­ploit when their work needs grav­i­tas.

His­tor­i­cally, nat­u­ral-his­tory mu­se­ums have been un­con­cerned with en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy. Th­ese are Vic­to­rian in­sti­tu­tions — places of ed­i­fi­ca­tion, dis­cov­ery, and won­der­ment — whose pre­de­ces­sors are the cu­rio cab­i­nets of Re­nais­sance Europe. Over the last few decades, how­ever, with cat­a­clysm loom­ing large, it be­came harder to dis­cuss the nat­u­ral world with­out also ad­vo­cat­ing for it. And so mu­se­ums, the ROM in­cluded, made en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism part of the mis­sion.

Engstrom is hardly op­posed to such think­ing. He’s cur­rently work­ing on a mas­sive ex­hi­bi­tion about how cli­mate change is dev­as­tat­ing the Arc­tic. “If we want to tell a cli­mate change story,” he says, “we need to re­ally tell it, in­stead of drag­ging it in where it doesn’t be­long.”

Sinc e whales are iconic and elu­sive, we often treat them more as sym­bols — in the me­dieval pe­riod, they stood for mon­strous­ness, and in the Ro­man­tic era, soli­tude — than as or­gan­isms in their own right. They are fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause they’re su­perla­tive. They have brains five times the size of ours but a con­scious­ness that is wholly un­know­able. Their calls make them seem at once oth­er­worldly and fa­mil­iar: like hu­mans, they sing to each other; un­like us, they do so in ethe­real, alien tones.

Out of the Depths avoids this kind of sen­ti­men­tal­ism. It doesn’t treat the 2014 die-off as an al­le­gory for our en­dan­gered planet. It fo­cuses in­stead on the species it­self and its ex­tra­or­di­nary nat­u­ral his­tory. Vis­i­tors will get to mea­sure their flimsy mass and rapid heart rate against those of a heavy, slow-puls­ing blue whale. They’ll pass through a sound cham­ber pro­ject­ing a blue whale call, a low-fre­quency rum­ble that can be heard thou­sands of kilo­me­tres away. And they’ll see cast fos­sils of “tran­si­tional whales” — un­canny long-snouted crea­tures with semi-ar­tic­u­lated limbs — that mark the cetacean’s ori­gins as a hoofed land mam­mal sim­i­lar to a pig or deer.

Ire­land says he “fought hard” to have cli­mate change at least men­tioned in the show, if only as one topic among many. He’s sat­is­fied with the com­pro­mise. “We’ve learned through au­di­ence re­search that the doom-and-gloom mes­sages aren’t work­ing,” he says. “If you’re preach­ing from the pul­pit and telling peo­ple what you think they need to hear, the chances of them turn­ing off is re­ally high.” He re­calls a dio­rama at the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory that showed an ema­ci­ated po­lar bear crawl­ing over a garbage dump. “Why not also give a beau­ti­ful im­age of a po­lar bear?” he asks. “Then, at the end, you can say, ‘If you want to help, here are some things you can do.’”

If the blue whale ex­hi­bi­tion awes you, then you’ll be more re­cep­tive to a hint, sub­tly de­liv­ered, about where to go from here. There’ll be an in­ter­ac­tive map show­ing the im­por­tance of marine-pro­tected ar­eas that safe­guard whales from ship strike, a video fea­tur­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions you might sup­port, and a short an­i­ma­tion ex­plain­ing that when a blue whale dies, it sinks slowly to the ocean floor, se­ques­ter­ing car­bon and pro­vid­ing nutrients to a deep-wa­ter sys­tem. Blue whales, says Ire­land, are “phe­nom­e­nal ecosys­tem engi­neers.”

For cu­ra­tors look­ing to fos­ter eco­log­i­cal aware­ness, the old Vic­to­rian ideal — of stim­u­lat­ing cu­rios­ity and won­der­ment — may still be the best place to start. To marvel at a species is to begin to care about it. And to en­counter a blue whale, in the wild or in a mu­seum, is to con­front the rad­i­cal oth­er­ness of the non-hu­man world. It’s often said that to be an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist, you have to stop think­ing of peo­ple as the high­est life form. Many of us have reck­oned with this idea in­tel­lec­tu­ally, but get close enough to a blue whale, and you’ll feel it in­stinc­tively, too.

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