Stranded Humpback Whale

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.

Stranded Humpback Whale, photo: J. Van Dyck

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.

Dr Steve Van Dyck, photo: R. Raven

Heather Janetzki, photo: R. Raven

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.

Stranded Humpback Whale, photo: Shona Hocknull

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.

Baleen, photo: S. Hocknull

Whale Retrieval, photo: R. Raven

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.

Whale Skeleton exposed, photo: M. Ekins

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.

Whale Retrieval, photo: M. Ekins

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 more about the work that Steve does visit his Biography Page and to learn about Heather’s job visit her Biography Page.

To learn about the feeding adaptations of marine mammals, including how baleen plates function, view the Marine Mammals video.

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About Adriana Bauer

I am a Senior Project Officer (Biodiversity) in the Strategic Learning section of the Queensland Museum. I have been working here since August 2008 but before then, I was teaching in secondary schools in Brisbane. My subject areas include Biology, Junior Science, and Junior and Senior Mathematics. Since working at the museum, I have been involved in developing online learning resources, QM Loans kits, updating our Inquiry Centre Fact Sheets, delivering professional development for teachers, and writing educational resources that support the new Australian Science Curriculum. I have a passion and interest in biodiversity and did my academic studies at the University of Queensland where I obtained a B.Sc, B.A, and Dip. Ed.
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