It's a whale of an effort

Workers lived in tents on the beach for 10 days and worked day and night to skin the mammal.

The skeleton of a baleen whale on display at the Regional Museum of Natural History in Bhubaneswar

On June 2010, fishermen and passersby were surprised to see a hugh object on the shores of Bay of Bengal.

The carcass of a huge baleen whale was swept ashore to the Gopalpur beach in southern Odisha Ganjam district.

Hundreds of curious onlookers milled around it and  suggestions started flying thick and fast as to what to do with the carcass.

As the news spread, environmentalists and marine scientists also rushed to the spot, with their own ideas in mind on what to do with the huge mass of flesh.

Quick action was required. Otherwise, the dead mammal could have decomposed, leaving a bad stench in the area.

The Regional Museum of Natural History (RMNH), Bhubaneswar, swung into action to make the best out of the situation. A unit of the New Delhi-based National Museum of Natural History working under the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest, the RMNH decided to preserve it for posterity.

Its efforts have borne fruit and now the 47.3-foot-long whale continues to evoke similar interest and enthusiasm among the people, particularly youngsters.

The RMNH successfully skinned out baleen whale, a Bryde’s Whale to be precise, and is now on display inside the marine bio-diversity gallery of the museum. It was inaugurated for public viewing on August 10. “It is certainly our prized possession which is now generating a lot of interest among the visitors, particularly youngsters,” said museum in charge G N Indresha.

A highly endangered sea species, Bryde’s Whale, popularly known as Balaenoptera among marine scientists, is considered medium size baleen whale whose colour is dark grey with white underbelly. The whale, which has the capability to swim about 23 km an hour, is listed as “Data Deficient” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

It is also listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora(CITES) Appendix 1, which prohibits international trade. The whale species has also been included in schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

Significantly, this is for the first time such an exercise-- taking the skeleton of a giant-sized whale out of its carcass and installing it in a museum -- has been successfully executed in independent India. Whale skeletons are on display currently in two other museums in the country--  Baroda and Chennai. However, both the skeletons were taken out from dead whales during pre-independent period.

According to Indresha, the skeleton which is on display at the Chennai museum was collected from a 60 feet long dead blue whale found at a sea beach on the Mangalore coast in Karnataka way back in 1874. Similarly, the whale skeleton at the Baroda museum was collected from Gujarat coast in 1944.

On the RMNH’s decision two years back to collect the baleen whale’s carcass, Indresh said as soon as the local media flashed the news of the giant size whale carcass on the Gopalpur coast, he and his team consisting of 10 to 15 personnel from the museum rushed to the spot to do the job with the permission of the state forest department.

However, it was not easy to skin the sea animal and the team faced several hurdles. The sheer size and weight of the whale--80-tonne--were a major problem. It had to be carefully cut into pieces and everything had to be done on the spot.

“We had to stay in tents on the beach for about ten days and we worked day and night to skin the big mammal to get the skeleton. It was certainly a tough and Herculean task,” Siba Prasad Parida, an interpreter at the RMNH who played a key role in the skeleton removal exercise, said.

Recollecting the hard work, Parida said it took an entire night to carry only the skull of the giant marine species from the sea beach to the truck that transported the skeleton to Bhubaneswar. “Besides hands, we had to use ropes and bamboo sticks to carefully put the big skull on the vehicle,” he said.

The team also had to be extremely careful during nights because of threats from predators like jackals and dogs keen to eat the dead whale as well as the tidal waves which were threatening to pull back the carcass into the sea.

“We were keen not to lose even a single bone of the whale. Otherwise, we would have been forced to use artificial bones. All the bones in the skeleton are
original,” Parida said. The chemical treatment of skinned skeleton in the museum in Bhubaneswar was also a challenging and  tedious job.

The hard labour of two years seems to have paid off going by the growing crowd at the museum after the local media covered the news of display of the whale skeleton.
The RMNH also houses skeleton of a wild elepha­nt that had unleashed a reign of terror in the villages on the outskirts of the state capital a few years ago.

Therefore, the Bhubaneswar museum perhaps has become the only museum in the country which holds the unique distinction of keeping the skeletons of the biggest animals on land as well as of the ocean world.

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