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Beluga skeleton coming to zoo

Model cast in Alberta needs some assembly

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Belugas can grow to over six metres.

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Belugas can grow to over six metres.

A beluga whale is migrating to the Assiniboine Park Zoo, but you'll have to use your imagination to see it.

The zoo has commissioned a nearly four-metre-long model of a beluga whale skeleton to be part of the soon-to-open Journey to Churchill exhibit. The beluga skeleton was cast by a company in Alberta and is scheduled to be up before the end of the May long weekend.

"I've got the skeleton in a crate with me right here, and it should go up (today) or Saturday," Frank Hadfield said by telephone during a stop in Medicine Hat, Alta., en route to Winnipeg.

Hadfield is president of Palcoprep, a paleontology collection and preparation company based in Drumheller, Alta., the heart of that province's dinosaur region. Now seven years in operation, Palcoprep casts and moulds skeletal reconstructions of all types of creatures, from dinosaurs to grizzly bears to birds.

'It's part of the telling of the story of the animals and ecosystem of the North'

-- Laura Cabak, Assiniboine Park Conservancy

The creation Hadfield is putting together for the zoo is a smaller version of a beluga whale, measuring 4.5 metres long. A full-size beluga can grow past six metres, but because a good portion of the whale's tail is soft tissue, the skeleton's length comes down a bit.

Beluga whales are Arctic creatures, inhabiting the coastal regions of northern countries, and are recognized for their stark, white appearance and lack of a dorsal fin. They are considered playful and docile, but Hadfield expects people will be taken aback when they see the beluga skeletal model at the Journey to Churchill exhibit.

"That's kind of the neat thing about cetaceans and whales -- their skeletons don't really look like anything you'd expect them to look like," he said. "The skull has sort of a prehistoric marine-reptile look to it. It looks a lot meaner than what a cuddly white whale looks like. It's a bit a shock in that respect."

Laura Cabak, manager of brand and communications with the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, said the replica skeleton will be suspended from the ceiling of the Gateway to the Arctic part of the Journey to Churchill exhibit.

"That's where people will come to see swimming polar bears and seals. It's part of the telling of the story of the animals and ecosystem of the North, which includes that big body of water in Hudson Bay," she said.

The beluga skeleton is small potatoes for Hadfield. Over the years, his company has put together a 20-metre skeleton of a humpback whale for an exhibit in the Maritimes and oversaw the replication of an eight-metre blue-whale skull in Vancouver.

"We were actually approached by people in Newfoundland when those blue whales washed up on shore a few weeks back," he said.

"We're not sure if we're going to be getting any work from towns out there, though."

The beluga whale skeleton project has been in the works about two years. Working with an assistant, Hadfield figures it will take him an hour or so to assemble the beluga skeleton at the zoo. The Journey to Churchill northern species exhibit, a part of the Assiniboine Park Zoo's $200-million redevelopment, is scheduled to open July 3.

 

-- with files from Geoff Kirbyson

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2014 B5

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