Whale Bone Collector Reveals Secrets of the World’s Largest Marine Mammals

David Stemmer’s job as head of the SA Museum’s whale collection sometimes takes him knee-deep in tons of blood and offal to restore rotting carcasses of the largest mammals on Earth, but he turns the ugly into something beautiful for the world to see.

The SA Museum has the largest and most comprehensive collection of cetaceans in Australia and attracts researchers from all over the world.

About 38 different species of whales, dolphins and porpoises are stored for research, with the bulk of the 1,400-piece collection comprising 900 dolphin specimens.

Mr Stemmer said the collection enabled research into population dynamics to help conserve the marine mammals by identifying and minimizing human impact.

But there are logistical considerations and limitations to their ability to learn more about the largest cetaceans – some whales are very rarely seen, while others are too remote or large to be recovered.

Large black and white whale on the waterfront of the beach with rope around the tail, lifted or towed by front loader, people watching
Whales are difficult to find for research because of their size and beaches in isolated locations.Delivered: SA Museum

“In general, the large whales are much, much harder to study because of their size,” Mr Stemmer said.

“For some studies, you need a lot of individuals to get a good answer — the classic morphological study done on smaller animals cannot be done.”

Scientists used the smallest molecules to learn about the largest animals.

“A lot of the research is on the molecular, looking at genetics,” said Mr. Stemmer.

“You can sample the baleen plates for isotopes with the baleen whales.

“They grow a bit like hair, they’re keratin, and they grow over time, so you can sample them around the outer edge and extract the different isotope signatures from where they’ve lived their lives, because different areas have different isotope signatures.” .”

Barn with wooden boxes stacked high on the left and large long bones piled on the floor, more in open cupboards on the right
The collection of cetaceans in front of the SA Museum.Delivered: SA Museum

Access dilemma

COVID travel restrictions affected the investigation.

“Pre-COVID we occasionally had visitors studying the collection because one of the other problems with cetaceans is that they are too big to post around the world and country,” Mr Stemmer said.

The team waited for a baleen whale researcher from the US to travel and help dissect a rare pygmy right whale that came from Port Lincoln.

Mr Stemmer said the fishery has helped collect and freeze the whale.

“They managed to collect that whole whale for use and put it in one of their bait freezers,” he said.

The minke whale is in its own family and is one of the smallest whales with a length of about 6 meters.

“There aren’t many places in the world where they are found and Port Lincoln is a hot spot – most of our minke whale specimens are from Port Lincoln,” Mr Stemmer said.

He said it was exciting when a stranding was discovered.

“We find out about whale strandings pretty quickly and with smartphones we get pictures and can decide if we want to pick it up if it’s accessible,” Mr Stemmer said.

Man on the left, woman on the right in the foreground, decomposing whale body in the background on the water's edge.
Mr. Stemmer discusses removing parts of the southern right whale with Tumby Bay landowner Sue Lawrie.Provided: Sue Lawrie

“And you have to be able to keep breathing until you don’t notice the smell anymore.

“We actually had to rent a front end loader to move a whale further up the beach so we could collect it and sharks also fed on it.”

At other times, only a sample of the whale would be taken.

“There was a large male sperm whale and we couldn’t collect the whole animal, that was just too much, but the local ranger used a chainsaw to cut the lower jaws for us.”

Large brownish bones in a container with brown-stained sides
The bones of a fin whale after being cleaned in the maceration vessel. They are the second largest whale behind the blue whale.Delivered: SA Museum

Meat left to rot

Smaller specimens are placed in a 2,500-gallon maceration vessel with heated water that rots the flesh of the bones — a process that takes several months.

“We also have a big concrete tank, a 35,000 liter pool, in which we put big whales, but that tank isn’t heated, so we’re relying on a nice warm summer to let the animal rot,” he said.

Mr. Stemmer enjoyed giving the whales a second life.

“To go out on the beach and have this dead stinking blob there, collect it and make it into a beautiful skeleton for the collection — it gives another purpose to the sad demise of one of these majestic creatures.”

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