05/07/2014 05:48 EDT | Updated 07/07/2014 05:59 EDT

Royal Ontario Museum begins arduous task of recovering blue whale carcasses

The first phase of a multi-year project is underway as a team from a Toronto museum began the laborious process of removing, stripping and preserving the carcasses of two blue whales that have been rotting off Newfoundland's west coast.

A crew from the Royal Ontario Museum has assembled in the community of Trout River to move a whale corpse from the shores of the small town near Gros Morne National Park.

In a few days, they will go to the nearby town of Rocky Harbour to recover another of the multi-tonne mammals.

Both carcasses are expected to then be transferred to nearby Woody Point, where the team will begin trying to find a silver lining in one of nature's tragedies.

Mark Engstrom, the museum's deputy director for collections and research, said the arduous process of transporting and preserving the bones is a worthwhile effort in light of a devastating blow dealt to one of Canada's most endangered marine species this past winter.

The two blue whales Engstrom's team is recovering were among nine killed by unusually thick sea ice, Engstrom said, adding that number represented about five per cent of the population in the North Atlantic.

The chance to preserve some record of a highly endangered species, he said, marks one of the more bittersweet moments in his 30-year career.

"I'm sad that the whales have died. I think that's a real tragedy," Engstrom said in an interview from Toronto. "It's a very small population, so that part I'm not happy about. But of course it's exciting to get a chance to work with a blue whale, which I never would have had otherwise. It's the largest animal that's ever lived, so it's hard not to be excited about being able to work on the biggest animal ever on earth."

Engstrom said 10 to 12 people will assemble in Woody Point over the next few days to collect tissue samples and begin preparing the whales for their 2,600-kilometre journey to their new home.

It's a dirty, time-intensive process, Engstrom said, adding that the crew will be working through the stench of what he describes as one of the worst smells on the planet.

The team will spend about two weeks stripping the corpses of all skin, blubber and skeletal muscles before taking the skeletons apart and packing them up for transport.

Backhoes attached to specialized lines may speed up the skin-removal process, but if the machinery is not available the messy task will be completed by hand, Engstrom said.

Once the roughly 60-tonne bodies are prepared, they'll be loaded onto two 18-wheeler trucks and driven to Ontario. That trip, Engstrom said, is one of the shortest stretches of the preservation process.

While the tissue samples collected in Newfoundland will be available to international researchers almost immediately, the bones won't be ready for scientific study for at least three years, Engstrom said.

The skeleton will be packed in soil and manure for a year to help compost any remaining flesh. Then comes the process of stripping the bones of the substance that allows the giant mammals to survive in the world's deepest oceans.

"They contain a lot of oil which keeps them from becoming crushed if they do deep dives," Engstrom said of blue whale bones. "It helps in buoyancy and so on. So the bones contain a lot of oil, and you have to get that oil out ... which is probably the hardest part of the whole process."

Engstrom said scientists will likely drain the bones by soaking them in water until the oil rises to the surface, adding that process can take up to two years.

But amateur marine biologists shouldn't start marking their calendars for a museum exhibit in 2017, he said. The bones would be extremely expensive to prepare and mount for display, and it's no guarantee the necessary funds would be available.

Engstrom said the time-consuming project is primarily for the benefit of the global scientific community. He believes it's worth spending "tens of thousands of dollars" to maintain a record of a historically significant species on the verge of extinction.

"There are very few of them in collections because they're so large, yet they're a very important part of the Canadian fauna and they're all very highly endangered. So if someone doesn't go about doing this kind of work now, it may not be possible to do it in the future."