It’s a waste to throw away a whale

Naturalis/Rebecca Reurslag

Two weeks ago, five sperm whales were beached in the north of the Netherlands, so the “whale team” from Leiden’s Naturalis museum rushed out to dissect the creatures.

Steven van der Mije: “They call us when one of the larger species of whale, rorquals, sperm whales, humpbacks and so on, is found on the beach.”
Pepijn Kamminga: “The government ask us to clean up the beach. But it’s such a waste throw away a whole whale so we take the skeleton back with us for dissection and mounting and take tissue samples for DNA research.”
Van der Mije: “Anything left goes in the incinerator and is turned into electricity.”
Ronald de Ruiter: “Never before have five sperm whales been beached at the same time, and because they were alive when they stranded, they were quite fresh. Whales that have been floating around at sea for two weeks can be a bit whiffy.”
Van der Mije: “We start on the outside. We measure them and check for parasites but then it’s time to make the first cut. Gas is produced as it rots, so it has to be punctured.”
Kamminga: “It could explode otherwise.”
De Ruiter: “It’s smelly for us too, but you get used to it after five minutes. When I see the audience with handkerchiefs in front of their noses, I think ‘Come on people, it’s really not that bad.’”
Kamminga: “If any blubber lands on anything, the smell gets right into it. Would it be a good idea to go to a party the same evening? My girlfriend says no.”
Karen van Dorp: “I really do draw the line at some things, but not a rotting whale. My curiosity always conquers. Nonetheless, I have special whale thermals – I don’t wear them when I go skiing any more – and I’ve had to throw away so many rucksacks I now use plastic bags.”
Kamminga: “Some of our team do the cutting up while the others help out. Some of us are up to our necks in slush so you need someone to feed you a clean sandwich during your lunch break, or wipe globs of dead whale out of your eyes.”
De Ruiter: “It’s tough work. The outer layer of fat is twenty centimetres thick, it’s cold and your hands cramp up.”
Kamminga: “The blubber is thick and tough. We use razor-sharp knives. But we can’t waste any time so we keep going. We cut the whale into pieces of about twenty or thirty kilos. But hauling that away is tough going. It’s like an autopsy practical, but it comes in size XXL.”
Becky Desjardins: “I feel as if I’m eight hundred years old at the end of the day. I enjoy it, but I prefer dissecting and mounting small birds.”
Van Dorp: “I feel privileged to do this work, but it does get to me. Sometimes you get a lot of stick from the public, as happened in the case of Johanna the Whale.”
De Ruiter: “They said we should be put down. Everyone had something to say on the matter.”
Kamminga: “Some people think we’re vultures, waiting until beached whales die, or that we make a profit from them – which is silly of course.”
Van der Mije: “We’d love to see them swim away but if they’re dead anyway, we’re happy to put them to good use. And sometimes we find stuff: we were surprised to find a foetus in a common minke whale in Harlingen.”

Petra Meijer

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