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Extra costs have Royal Ontario Museum reassessing plan to handle two blue whales

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WOODY POINT, N.L. - Newfoundlanders who want to keep at least one of two giant blue whales that washed ashore on the west coast of the island may get their wish.

The man leading the Royal Ontario Museum's effort to dismember and transport those remains to Toronto says he must review plans to handle both carcasses.

"My commitment when I came in was to do at least one whale and my hope is to do both of them," Mark Engstrom, deputy director of collections and research for the museum, said during a break from the huge, smelly job.

"We're doing the Trout River whale and then I have to reassess my budget and see where I am in terms of whether or not I can actually do the Rocky Harbour whale," he said.

"I've incurred a few expenses that I hadn't expected so it's going to be tight to do both whales."

Those extra costs include towing the first carcass from Trout River to adjacent Woody Point where it could more easily be worked on, Engstrom said. The second body is still resting in shallow water near the Rocky Harbour fish plant in Gros Morne National Park.

They are among nine rare and endangered whales that became trapped in pack ice earlier this spring. It's believed they were either crushed or drowned as they tried to surface to breathe.

Engstrom said he expects to finish with the whale in Woody Point on Monday as its delicate skeleton, expected to measure about nine metres long, is removed and packed.

Rocky Harbour Mayor Walter Nicolle had expressed relief when the museum offered to add the whales to its collection and make scientific data available to global researchers. Local officials had raised concerns about health hazards and the impact on crucial tourism if the carcasses were left to rot.

"We're only a small town," Nicolle said earlier this month. "We don't have a budget large enough to take care of that whale."

Engstrom, who has dealt with the remains of several other whale species, said even he was surprised at the huge challenge posed by the biggest animal on the planet.

Squawking sea gulls feasted Sunday as Engstrom's team of museum staff and several local men used flensing knives to remove tonnes of blubber and skeletal muscle from the 23-metre female whale. She is now exposed past her enormous rib cage as her bones are removed, labelled and stored in an 18-wheel truck.

The stench has been powerful enough at times that even seasoned fishermen have gagged.

Woody Point Mayor Ken Thomas approved the messy project as long as it was done in five days, ending Monday. He doubts the community of 300 could have taken on such a task alone.

"Looking at the magnitude of the job and getting to understand the skill sets that are required, it's highly unlikely that this could have been done with a local effort.

"The cost is certainly piling up."

Engstrom declined to discuss budget details. But he had said in an earlier interview that expenses to be absorbed by the museum would reach tens of thousands of dollars and he hoped they wouldn't exceed $100,000.

Local businesswoman Jenny Parsons is part of the new Trout River Blue Whale Committee that wants to establish its own exhibit. The idea that both whales would go to Ontario was seen by many residents as a lost opportunity.

But as the federal government passed responsibility to the province and provincial officials stayed quiet, the museum stepped in.

"It's this once-in-a-lifetime event and we would hope and keep our fingers crossed that nothing like this ever happens to the blue whale population ever again," Parsons said in an interview.

"But I believe from the tragic event there can be a very positive outcome for this, not only for the Royal Ontario Museum but also for the town of Trout River.

"With the fishery dying more each day, and with the cutbacks that government is giving us, this blue whale exhibit in the enclave of a national park could be nothing but a positive thing for this little town."

The big question is who would pay to take responsibility for the second whale.

Parsons’ group hasn’t got to that point yet. They want to start a non-profit corporation and see about raising funds and resources.

Northwest Atlantic blue whales are endangered with an estimated population of just 250 before the nine known deaths.

History

Updated on Sunday, May 11, 2014 at 6:58 PM CDT: Video added

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