Toronto

A Lesson in Cetology: Meeting Blue the Whale at the Royal Ontario Museum

This spring Toronto saw the arrival of two unusual visitors. One was a deluge of heavy rain that nearly flooded the city. The other was the skeleton of a blue whale, one of the nine killed by drifting sea ice near the coast of Newfoundland in May 2014. The former caught everyone by surprise, while the latter marked the culmination of a project three years in the making by the Royal Ontario Museum. Yet both were, to varying extents, consequences of climate change and harbingers of extreme weather events to come.

So it was hard to dispel feelings of eco-anxiety as I lined up by the ROM’s entrance for tickets to meet the museum’s latest acquisition. The exhibit brochure noted that the 2014 incident wiped out 3% of Northwest Atlantic’s blue whale population, which was a catastrophe tantamount to the United States losing every single resident living in Michigan. Somehow this world of ours seemed to be morphing into a perverted retelling of Moby Dick in which Captain Ahab does succeed in killing the White Whale at the expense of drowning the entire planet. The timely appearance of a stampede of toddlers racing towards the ticket queue saved me from further thoughts of gloom and doom. The stale atmosphere in the atrium was instantly enlivened by eager cries of “I wanna see the WHHHHAAAALLLLEEE!” Pessimism aside, I suddenly realized that I was about to come face-to-face with a real Leviathan, one of Nature’s greatest wonders. In the immortal words of Stubb, the Pequod’s second mate: be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.

Blue whale specimens are considered a rarity onto themselves because even in death, these marine giants prove defiant to human control. Extracting whale skeletons is a prodigious task that required ample patience and manpower to execute. Until now, there has been only two blue whales collected in Canada: “The Castle” at the Museum of Nature in Ottawa and “Big Blue” at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in British Columbia. Both preservation projects spanned well over two decades. Thanks to more funding and better technology, however, the Royal Ontario Museum is able to finish its specimen for display in record time — just under three years. The new whale has been given the rather unimaginative name “Blue.” I personally prefer “Lollipop,” a moniker that was once used in reference to the skeleton to describe the disproportionate size of its skull to its spine. Oh lolli lolli lolli!

The exhibit kicked off with a detailed timeline that chronicled every step of the preservation process. The display began with news reports from 2014 when the whale first captured international attention after footages of its bloated, methane-filled body lying near Trout River, Newfoundland went viral on Youtube. This was followed by a series of government applications, project proposals, and gory photos of museum researchers covered bloody bits of whale as they prepared the carcass for transportation. For an added flare, visitors were encourage to take a sniff of a Fossil wrist watch worn by one of the curators during the flensing process. The wrist band was still saturated with the smell of salt and decay even two years after the event. The timeline ended with a quick primer about how the specimen was actually made. As it turns out, the whale bones were left in containers filled with manure for nine months so that the bacteria could drain the oil residue left in the bone pores. The bones then underwent several rounds of vapour degreasing before they were reassembled for final display.

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After that long introduction, the main star of the exhibition was finally unveiled — Blue or the Whale Formerly Known as Lollipop. She was on a pedestal, head levelled, jaw parted, torso bent in slight contrapposto. This was a mating pose called “coursing,” the display label explained. An old man read the sentence out loud and guffawed. A few feet from him, a young woman looked absolutely crestfallen at this revelation. Meanwhile, at the back of the room, a group of women were nervously eyeing a scale which was designed to calculate the mass of the whale in proportion to the visitor’s own weight. Unfortunately, the result would display in huge orange numbers for all to see. Although the feature was a huge hit among children, I saw only one adult brave enough to mount its platform. All around, the halls were filled with the sonorous rhythms of recorded whale calls and mundane chatters about the skyrocketing Toronto real estate prices.

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If kids won’t stop misbehaving, the parents can dress them up as krills and pretend to feed them to a whale.

The exhibit ended with an analysis of the whale by its individual body parts with life-size replicas of the heart, sprout, brain, baleen, blood, and even excrements (in form of a giant puddle of orange spray on the floor). In addition, a small cabinet showcased various commercial products that were manufactured from whale bones, blubber, and meat.

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Melville on whale brains: “In the case of a small Sperm Whale the brains are accounted a fine dish. The casket of the skull is broken into with an axe, and the two plump, whitish lobes being withdrawn (precisely resembling two large puddings), they are then mixed with flour, and cooked into a most delectable mess.”

Besides the blue whale exhibit, the ROM is also home to several comprehensive collections about natural history and different world cultures. This grand old curiosity cabinet is a great place to spend an afternoon if you’re ever in Toronto.

Now, what to eat in celebration of meeting a whale? The proper meal for any (pseudo)seafarer is undoubtedly chowder and sea biscuits. In Moby Dick, Ishmael managed to devote an entire chapter to describing Mrs Hussey’s famous clam chowder (not a euphemism, I promise). In face of the diminishing fish stocks in the sea, I think it’d better to try out a vegetarian chowder option instead. This corn chowder does make a satisfying meal, but to compensate for the lack of clams or fish, please use full-fat milk or (better yet) cream; it’s the only way to appease both your eco-conscience and your taste buds.

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Vegetarian Corn Chowder

Makes 4 servings.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 stalks of celery, diced
  • 2 small Yukon potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 3 sweet mini peppers, chopped
  • 2 ears of fresh corn, husk discarded
  • Half a knob of garlic, minced
  • 1 cup of whole milk
  • 3 cups of chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Set a saucepan over medium heat and add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, throw in all the vegetables except for the corn kernels, and stir until the onions are softened, about 5 to 8 minutes.
  2. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Then turn the heat down and let the chowder simmer, covered for about 15 minutes.
  3. Add the corn and the milk, bring to a boil again, then simmer uncovered for 10 more minutes.
  4. Season with salt and pepper and serve with (preferably) sea biscuits. Or, for a less austere version, freshly baked drop biscuits.

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