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Beached whales buoy Canadian town's tourism

Plans to dissect five massive beached whales have brought researchers and media to Newfoundland.

Last updated: 07 May 2014 14:52
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Trout River, Canada - What to do with the rotting remains of a 25-metre long blue whale washed up on the beach right next to where people live, work and play?

That's a question gripping the pretty hamlet of Trout River, on the coast of Canada's eastern province of Newfoundland and Labrador. "We were driving over the hill and I saw what looked like a ship trapped in the ice pack," says local bed and breakfast owner Doris Sheppard, "but it wasn't a ship. It was the bloated carcass of that whale."

She points from the town boardwalk at a vast black and orange mound of whale flesh. The creature was lying on its back in the sand.

The whale is one of nine that Canadian ocean scientists believe to have died from suffocation last month when sea ice lined the coast, preventing the marine mammals from surfacing and breathing. At least four other blue whales - the largest creatures ever to exist - have washed ashore along the coast from Trout River.

At first, the 700 people of the village were told they had to deal with the remains themselves. It was above the high tide line and within village limits so no other level of government in Canada was technically responsible. But as they rotted, the beached whales of western Newfoundland went viral. The world's media noticed.

Unfounded explosion fears

"Fears that sixty tonne blue whale carcass washed up on beach of tiny Newfoundland village could EXPLODE," screamed a headline in Britain's Daily Mail.

"Beached whale explosion: Newfoundland on alert," said the online news magazine, Slate.

"Rotting whale carcass worries Newfoundland town," fretted the Toronto Sun, in a more cautious vein.

What better thing for tourists to see than the skeleton of the largest creature on the planet. Right here in Trout River.

- Jenny Parsons, restaurant owner

YouTube videos that showed dead whales bursting or being blown up with dynamite were widely circulated. Trout River town clerk Emily Butler told the Toronto Star: "I'm not sure with the heat and gases that are trapped inside of this mammal if at some point in time it will explode."

But ocean scientists thought differently. Jack Lawson of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans said late last month, when the whale remains were ballooned with methane gas, that the chances of an explosion were "very small".

He was right. However inaccurate, global attention to an unlikely whale explosion helped force government and a prominent Canadian museum to help Trout River with its problem. Canada's Fisheries Minister Gail Shea has announced that Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum will help dissect and move the remains of at least two of the five beached whales in Newfoundland.

Dr Mark Engstrom, Deputy Head of Collections at the museum says the loss of a blue whale, an endangered species, was a real tragedy.

"We wish it hadn't happened," Engstrom says, "but this is a real opportunity to see (a blue whale) and work with one." He said museum workers would help villagers and others dismantle the remains of the whales at Trout River and nearby town of Rocky Harbour. "There's nothing that smells worse than a dead whale. They don't smell good to begin with and these have been dead awhile," he told the Canadian press news agency.

Tourist attraction

One person who knows that first hand is David Hayashida of King's Point, in central Newfoundland. When a dead humpback whale floated into a nearby bay 13 years ago, Hayashida led a team of local volunteers to retrieve the whale, butcher it and preserve the bones for display.

"All you need is fish knives, heavy equipment and some people with strong stomachs," he says. "You have to crawl right inside and it's slippery and not very nice. But it's been worth it." The bones were reassembled and suspended from the ceiling of a waterfront pavilion that attracts several thousand visitors a year.

Many eat in local restaurants and visit Hayashida's pottery and craft shop. Whale bones, it seems, are good for a community that depends on tourism for much of its income. That's why Jenny Parsons, who runs the Seaside Restaurant on Trout River's waterfront, is campaigning for the whale skeleton to stay where it washed up. The work crews from the Royal Ontario Museum will be removing at least two of the five washed up whales in the coming weeks she says. There are enough bones to share.

"I was born here," she says, "and I think this town could use a break. We lost fishing as our main livelihood. Now we depend on tourism. What better thing for tourists to see than the skeleton of the largest creature on the planet. Right here in Trout River."

Others in town worry that the cost of retrieving, processing and preparing the bones for display will be more than the annual budget of their community. Parsons says money isn't the problem. "Look what they did in King's Point and look how successful it's been." she says, "We can raise the money here if we have to. I'm retired from teaching now and I need something to do."

A little of that spirit of enterprise is showing on the boardwalk, just above the much photographed remains of the whale. The Trout River volunteer fire department has set up a barbecue and is selling hamburgers and hot dogs to curious onlookers. "The smell can't be all that bad," says the man at the grill, "people are buying our food."

No more fears of an explosion and not even much smell of decay in the cool, spring weather, but what to do with the remains of this rare creature is still up in the air.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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