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OUT OF THE DEPTHS: THE BLUE WHALE STORY at the ROM. From March 11 to September 4.
In early 2014, nine blue whales were found trapped under ice and died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Eventually, two of those whales washed ashore in Newfoundland and Labrador. You may remember watching the news and seeing photos online of scientists and researchers with these two blue whales. They recovered the skeletons, a project led by Mark Engstrom of the Royal Ontario Museum. Now, one of those skeletons is on display in Toronto.
Out of the Depths: The Blue Whale Story is the newest exhibition at the ROM, opening March 11. Located in the Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall on the basement level, the exhibition features the reassembled skeleton of a 24-metre, 90-tonne mammal. In a word, it’s breathtaking.
It’s rare for museums to acquire skeletons of this size. Engstrom, the deputy director of collections and research, has been working at the ROM for over 25 years. He mainly deals with rodents and bats, and has helped recover about a half-dozen whales in his career, but knew encountering a blue whale – the largest animal in existence – was particularly special.
“Three years ago I received a call from a colleague in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans who asked if I had heard that nine blue whales had died in the ice off the coast of Newfoundland,” he recalls. “That started a chain reaction that led to this exhibition.”
In addition to the blue whale skeleton, which the ROM has named Blue, the exhibition includes large-scale video footage of the recovery effort, interactive displays including games that test how long you can hold your breath (compared to a blue whale) and a room that allows you to experience the vibrating noises blue whales use to communicate.
“If you want to get people interested in issues that matter like conservation biology, you need something charismatic,” Engstrom says. “Whales fill that bill.”
Certainly, aquariums around the world have known this to be true, which is why many of them continue to harbour aquatic mammals, also known as cetaceans, in captivity. In recent years, due to films like Blackfish, many of those aquariums including Marineland in Niagara Falls and the Vancouver Aquarium in B.C. have come under fire. Animal-rights activists have stated that holding tanks are far too small for these creatures that are used to swimming up to 150 kilometres a day.
Blue whales are some of the smartest, most resilient whales. They were hunted to near-extinction before placed under international protection in the 1960s. Today, blue whales are still considered to be among the most endangered of great whales, with total numbers estimated at less than 25,000.
The nine blue whales that died in 2014 represented about 3 per cent of the Northwest Atlantic population. Engstrom hopes that visitors to the ROM will feel inspired after seeing Blue and the exhibition.
“I hope people come away with a sense of awe for these magnificent animals, their ecology, their evolution and their genetics,” he says, “I hope they appreciate the efforts that are being used to conserve them, and most importantly, the marine environments in which they live.”