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The Blue Whale Project

When a 63-foot female blue whale was found dead on the shores of Liverpool, N.S. in May 2017, Dalhousie’s veterinarian, Chris Harvey-Clark, saw a chance to turn the loss of the critically endangered species into an opportunity. His vision was to have the bones serve as a public education piece.

“Since 2014 I’ve been interested in creating marine sculptures to enhance our understanding of marine life,” says Dr. Harvey-Clark, who is also a marine biologist. When the blue whale washed up, it was a chance to have the ‘real deal.’

That vision has inspired Dive In: The Blue Whale Project, a campaign to raise funds to support the restoration and articulation of the bones. The project will also support the ultimate goal—displaying the skeleton of the world’s largest mammal at a compelling new exhibit at Dal’s Steele Ocean Sciences Building. Supporters have the unique opportunity to name a bone—though supporting the project runs much deeper than that. It’s a chance to be a part of an exhibit that will shine a light on ocean conservation and further the understanding of marine mammal science. The exhibit, scheduled to open in 2021, will also be part of a larger interdisciplinary hub for research, education and community engagement around marine biodiversity.

A Massive Undertaking

When the blue whale washed up, it began an interdisciplinary innovative process that is ongoing. Dr. Harvey-Clark has worked along with Dalhousie associate professor Gordon Price, Engineering senior instructor Chris Nelson and a group of dedicated volunteers including many students to preserve and degrease the bones to create the mounted display. When the mammal was moved from the beach, it was taken to Dr. Price’s field research site, the Bio-Environmental Engineering Centre at Dal’s Agricultural Campus, for composting using a technique developed by Dr. Price. It’s setting a new industry standard in environmentally sustainable decomposition.

Researchers have had to weigh, catalogue and archive the bones to help create a virtual 3D model which will be part of the exhibit. (Nick Pearce photo)

So, where does one store the bones of this great mammal? The short answer is in the ground and then in a green house, where it now rests. For the last two years the bones have been composting to remove the grease, tissue and oils that are deeply embedded in the whale’s skeletal structure. Every six to eight months the bones were dug up to see how they were decomposing. And each dig created invaluable experiential learning experiences for students. “A lot of these students have taken part in Dal’s Whale School, so it’s further enhancing their understanding of marine mammal science,” says Dr. Harvey-Clark.

When the final dig was done in June 2018, researchers began weighing, cataloging and archiving the bones to create a virtual 3D model of the whale. When the exhibit opens in 2021, it will be one of only a few 3D representations of a blue whale skeleton in the world.

Bringing the vision to life

To date, donors have sponsored 50 bones. “From the very beginning, we had terrific support in getting this project off the ground,” says Dr. Harvey-Clark. “Now it’s an opportunity for others to be part of this important initiative to create a public education piece.”

Visit and help bring the exhibit to life.