Recently an adult Humpback Whale beached itself on North Stradbroke Island, just 1 km south of the Main Beach Surf Life Saving Club. The cause of death is unknown though it may have been infection-related due to the snagging and embedding of a crab pot around the tail of the whale.
Under the Nature Conservation (Whales & Dolphins) Plan 1997, Queensland Museum is authorised to take, use and keep specimens of cetaceans if they are deemed to be significant. (Cetaceans are marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and porpoises.)
The 14.5 metre whale is a highly significant specimen. After many decades of attending whale strandings, it provided the first opportunity for QM staff to acquire an adult humpback skeleton and tissue samples.
Senior Curator of Vertebrates, Dr Steve Van Dyck, said the whale skeleton had the potential to form the centrepiece of an exhibition in the future, and also be used for research purposes.
Steve and Heather Janetzki (Collection Manager, Mammals and Birds) assembled a small team of QM staff and, with the assistance of University of Queensland Moreton Bay Research Station, DERM (Department of Environment and Resource Management) QPWS (Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service) staff, and representatives of the Quandamooka Land Council, they spent two days flensing and removing the skeleton for the State Collection. (Flensing refers to the removal of the outer blubber layer of whales.) Another day was taken to clean up the mountain of blubber and flesh that remained.
The operation began by removing the lower jaw, then cutting wide incisions into the blubber and muscle then winching these great chunks off the animal to provide access to the neck, in order to cut the muscle away from the bones. A crane was used to roll the skull over. Then when it was released from any remaining tissue, it was dragged into a skip and from here pulled onto a 4WD truck.
Although the whale had been pulled up the beach to the level of the dunes, there was concern among locals that blood and tissue would attract sharks to Stradbroke’s most popular surfing beach.
The rest of the skeleton was retrieved by flensing the blubber off and cutting the muscle from all the vertebrae, using a winch and mini-excavator to pull the ribs out and cart the flesh away for burial.
The skull and skeleton were transported across Moreton Bay to a paddock in Brisbane. From here the bones will be taken to the Museum and macerated in a large boiler for a few days, then dried out. The entire baleen sheets are being preserved. Some soft parts and contents of the digestive system were also collected for other researchers.
Dr Van Dyck said the resulting skeleton was superb, complete and in very good condition. He and Heather are grateful to Tim Powell for transporting the skull and skeleton (separately) to Brisbane, to Stradbroke Ferries for waiving the barge fees to allow Tim to do this, to Geoff Pettingill for his gentle and expert excavator skills, and to Christine Durbidge for the cake she baked.
To learn about the feeding adaptations of marine mammals, including how baleen plates function, view the Marine Mammals video.