update: check out our Raise a Whale -Inspire Generations page!
Scia’new (Beecher Bay) First Nations (pronounced CHEA-nuh) have generously facilitated the future exhibit of a Grey Whale skeleton at the Deep Bay Field Station.
On the Easter weekend, a young malnourished grey whale approximately 10 metres in length washed up on the shore of East Sooke Park. We had previously indicated to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) that if a Grey Whale skeleton became available we would be interested in exhibiting it at the Deep Bay Field Station for educational and research purposes. Paul Cottrell, Acting Marine Mammal Coordinator for Fisheries and Oceans Canada approached VIU on Tuesday but the timing and resources were simply unavailable to consider acquiring the carcass.
On Friday morning, Paul contacted Brian Kingzett (Deep Bay Manager) to indicate that the local Scia’new (Beecher Bay) First Nation was concerned about the disrespect that hundreds of tourists were showing the carcass including removing flesh and baleen. The carcass was also beginning to decay and would soon be a health hazard. The First Nation was proposing to bury it on their lands and was enthusiastic about the whale serving a future educational role and being received by Vancouver Island University.
With leadership being shown by the First Nation, all parties met on Friday afternoon and made a plan to remove the whale from the beach the following day. An elder escorted DFO and VIU staff to a remote and sacred reserve and identified a suitable place to bring the carcass ashore and provide it with an honourable burial until such time as the bones could be exhumed by the Nation and VIU. A local tugboat operator, Bruce Davidson was recruited and Donny Jay, Sharon’s partner moved his excavator to the site that evening. A large tow rope capable of handling the weight was found on the reserve. CSR staff returned to Nanaimo to assemble materials for initial preparation of the carcass.
The following morning, Paul Cottrell and DFO staff in a patrol vessel secured the large line to the whale and brought the line out to the waiting tugboat. With the tide rising, the tug gently pulled the carcass from the beach while Scia’new members Sharon Cooper and her mother Pat sang a traditional song for its final swim. Approximately 4 km away, the tow rope was hiked up a hill and passed to the excavator and the whale was slowly dragged onto a bench overlooking the bay. Under the supervision of elders and community members, the carcass was prepared so that bones could be recovered after decomposition and it was buried where it will remain for two years or more.
What will happen next?
While natural decomposition initially prepares the bones, we will seek sponsors to fund the costs to work in partnership with the Scia’new First Nation to exhume the bones and then prepare and reassemble the skeleton for display in the public atrium of the Field Station. The preparation of the skeleton will provide an incredible learning opportunity for students involved in the process. Once on public display, this whale’s legacy will be to help educate and inspire about coastal species for decades to come.
Why a Grey Whale at a “Shellfish Centre”?
While the applied research focus of the Deep Bay Field Station is on shellfish research we will have a larger role in marine education. This includes educating the public about the sustainability in coastal communities and maintaining the health of inshore coastal ecosystems where human development has its most immediate impact. The Grey Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) is unique as a species in that it feeds in shallow bays and estuaries including foraging in muddy and sandy bottoms for shrimp, worms and other shellfish species. During their annual migration from the arctic to the Baja Mexico they travel along the shore of Mexico, the US and British Columbia in very close proximity to where coastal development is occurring. The Grey Whales recovery from near extinction is a reminder that we have the ability and a responsibility to protect and restore the health of the coastal systems that we rely on to support ourselves.
Want to help out?
To learn how you can support Deep Bay and the future preparation and exhibit of this whale please contact William Litchfield, Director Advancement & Alumni Relations, Vancouver Island University 900 Fifth St., Nanaimo, BC, V9R 5S5 | Tel: 250.740.6602 |Fax: 250.740.6491 William.Litchfield@viu.ca www.viu.ca/giving
The following photo-essay tracks the process.
A Channel Reports the initial stranding of the carcass
Later in the week, reports of abuse of the carcass begin to emerge (A-Channel)
On Friday afternoon the whale was beginning to bloat and most of the baleen and pieces of flesh had been removed by the public.
Band members, VIU staff and DFO looked for a good burial site on a secluded First Nations reserve and make a plan.
On Saturday morning – Fisheries Staff and Beecher Bay First Nations secure the tow rope to the carcass.
Paul Cotrell (DFO) in waders, Donny Jay in life jacket,
The whale was then pulled to sea (Youtube video). You can hear Pat and Sharon singing in background.
Bruce Davidson generously provided his 400hp logging tug to tow the whale.
At the reserve the whale is nudged ashore, the tow line transferred and hiked up the hill to the excavator.
The large excavator slowly pulled the whale to the top of the bank. Brian Kingzett (VIU) setting rigging on the bucket.
An A-channel reporter sleuthed his way to the site and interviews Sharon Cooper and Brian Kingzett.
Donny Jay dug a grave for the carcass and wire mesh was laid out to help make sure bones were recoverable in the future.
Pectoral fins were wrapped in mesh to retain small “finger bones” and cuts made through the skin and blubber to facilitate decomposition. Normally more dismemberment would take place to prepare a carcass, however sensitivity to the wishes of the First Nation favored a less invasive decision. Right before final burial, Brian Kingzett opened up the bloated stomach cavity at which point no one wanted to be there anymore.
Sharon Cooper and Elders brought Ferns and Cedar boughs to be laid on the body as a traditional mark of respect, here being done by VIU staff.
Donny Jay then proceeded to bury the carcass with organic soils that would help promote decomposition.
Finally the site was cleaned up and a large log placed across the grave.
The heroes of the day Donny Jay, Sharon Cooper and Bruce Davidson who made it happen at their own expenses take a well deserved smile at the end of a long day.
Misc: Media Stories
More Grey whales dying this year: Grey whale gorged on debris before it died in West Seattle – Times Colonist Apr21
Dead Whale Removed, Buried on Beecher Bay First Nation Land – Times Colonist April 10