TWILLINGATE, NL — As you approach the causeway heading towards Twillingate, in your line of sight is the Prime Berth Twillingate Fishery and Heritage Centre, along with a display featuring a 52-foot sei whale.
In addition, you can now see a second 32-foot long sei whale skeleton on display.
Prime Berth owner/operator David Boyd single-handedly prepared the whale carcasses and assembled the bones one by one on both skeletons.
It all started in 2006 when Boyd heard about a sei whale that had died in Fortune Harbour. He towed the carcass some 30 miles back to the Prime Berth and then to an area near Trump Island, where he built an enclosure and submerged the carcass as best he could for three years. Gases from the decomposition of the whale kept it from being totally submerged.
In 2010 Boyd retrieved the bones from the “blubbery mess,” cleaned and reassembled them for display.
Fast-forward to 2016. Boyd, who also offers tours, had a group of tourists from Africa with him at Trump Island. He spotted a couple of foxes on the beach, and while moving in closer to allow his guests to take some photos, noted a deceased whale just off the beach.
“It was skinny, it had very little fat,” he said. “It had sank to the bottom with just a fin sticking out of the water.”
Boyd contacted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to report the whale carcass. He also asked if it was OK for him to retrieve the whale, and consent was given. He towed the whale back to an area near the Prime Berth in August of 2016. One year later he was able to retrieve the bones and clean them up and once again start the process of reassembling the skeleton.
It is a painstaking process of measuring each bone and putting it together correctly.
“The process was a bit easier this time, but it’s a bit like a puzzle,” he said.
Boyd fabricated the metal stands that hold the skeletal remains of both whales. In total it cost Boyd less than $1,000 to reconstruct both skeletons, along with the many hours he put in.
The first whale was a male and the second is thought to be a female.
Boyd also has full racks of baleen from the whales on display.
While Boyd encourages people to visit Prime Berth to get an up-close look at the sei whale skeletons, his hope is that while people are there they will become informed and experience in some way his love and passion for the traditional way of life and culture he experienced growing up in Tizzard’s Harbour and fishing with his father.
“We want to show people the kind of life we had in Newfoundland that’s gone by the wayside,” he said.
Boyd has welcomed over 1,200 motor coaches over the last 23 years, giving them a snapshot into a way of life with a cod splitting demonstration. In 2016 they welcomed over 90 motor coaches and they already have bookings for 2018, many of them being return tours.
“We are obviously doing our part for the tourism picture in Twillingate,” he said.
Species Spotlight: Sei Whale
Common name: Sei whale
Status under SARA: Listed as Endangered for the Pacific Population and Data Deficient for the Atlantic Population in a 2003 assessment.
Range: Sei whales have a largely unknown geographic distribution, as their wintering grounds have not yet been identified. However, sei whales can be found in oceans in the sub-polar latitudes in each hemisphere during the summer months, and in sub-tropical waters during the colder months.
Life span: The oldest recorded age is 74 years in the wild.
Size: Females are slightly larger than males. These whales average 15-19 tonnes, and have an average length of 15m.
Population estimate: With the lack of recent data collection, the global population is estimated at 57,000.
Sei whales are part of the Rorquals, a group of baleen whales which include the largest animals on earth. Sei whales are the third largest whale after blue whales and fin whales.
Sei Whales are baleen whales, which refers to the structure of their teeth. Instead of the common mammal tooth form, baleen whales have plates for filtering foods in and filtering water out. Different baleen plate forms emphasize the type of prey food they eat; thus, baleen whales tend to be specialists in their diet. Sei whales are unique in that unlike most rorquals, they are capable of eating all types of micro-crustacean species, making it easier for this species to adapt to its environment. It also happens to be the fastest swimmer among the baleen whales. They can gain speeds of 30 knots (30 nautical miles per hour) in short bursts.
Although much is unknown about sei whales, their habitats are primarily pelagic (open water) locations associated with continental shelves. This is most likely due to the optimal locations for finding their typical prey foods, including copepods, amphipods and plankton. Small fish and squid can also pass through sei whales’ baleen plates and thus also contribute to their diet. Sei whales are streamlined, with small dark-grey to bluish patches and paler colours on their belly.
The sei whale’s Canadian range encompasses both coasts, and they are sometimes spotted along the coast of British Columbia and in the waters off of Newfoundland. While this species is found worldwide, it is largely restricted to deep waters in the temperate latitudes between the poles and the tropics, as they are sensitive to overly cold and overly warm waters.
The sei whale unfortunately has a sad story. These whales had fallen victim to many human threats including extreme overhunting as part of the historic whaling trade. During the 1960s, a wave of whaling took the sei whale’s global population from between 58,000 to 62,000 individuals to between 7,260 and 12,260 individuals by 1974. Studies showed that this heavy exploitation caused the age of maturation of female sei whales to decrease from 10-11 years to just eight years.
One significant impact factor for sei whales today is noise pollution, such as seismic testing for undersea oil and gas reserves. Noise pollution underwater has negatively affected numerous aquatic species, but particularly whales, dolphins and other marine animals that use echolocation (like sonar) for social communication and to navigate their environment. The increased amount of shipping traffic worldwide has also increased the risk of whale strikes at sea.
Sei whales are also impacted by human sources of pollution that end up in the ocean, such as plastics and contaminated run-off. Overfishing and commercial fisheries also degrade habitat and create food shortages for many animals, including sei whales, which then have nowhere to go and nothing to eat.
Source: Nature Canada (http://naturecanada.ca)