Raghly Community Join Forces to Preserve Whale Skeleton

13th Dec 2011 No two whale strandings are the same it seems. It is fascinating to see how local authorities and communities react to these events which are often unprecedented in living memory in any given place. A dead whale can be a nightmare for local authorities as crowds flock to see it while local councils weigh up their options for what is usually an expensive disposal process.

The most enterprising communities however see past the smelly problem, and instead make it an opportunity. If prepared properly, an articulated whale skeleton is an irresistible sight, attracting tourists to an area which they might otherwise pass by. It is also a tribute to these amazing native beasts which deserve our attention as their survival faces growing threats from human activities.

A week after the stranding of a 12m male fin whale near Raghly in Co. Sligo, the 'Maugherow Whale Group' Facebook page was set up by Davide Gallazzie. It went viral and before we knew it there were two low-loaders, two tractors, two JCBs, 6 butchers and two biologists and a single 20 tonne fin whale lined up at Raghly Pier. Between 1000 and 1500 on Saturday 10 December the butchers from Dawn Meats stripped the skin, blubber, muscle and innards from the rotting whale with superb efficiency.

They were carefully removing the bones from head to tail, starting with the jaw bones and ending with the very last vertebra in the tip of the tail. Each bone was carefully labelled by myself and Vivi Bolin so that the skeleton can be reconstructed once it is clean.

Despite getting a rough time in the stormy seas, the whale bones were in great shape, with just one of the 30 ribs broken, but this can be repaired. We could not find the vestigial pelvic bones (remains of the 'legs' which are often found hidden inside muscle on the whale's underside). Unfortunately the gut was far too decomposed to investigate what the animal may have been eating. Equally, the major organs had autolysed into an unrecognisable mush. However we did see finger-like 'papillae' on the edge of the tongue, a sign of a very young animal as these are used to achieve a seal while suckling, but they disappear in older whales after weaning. We also found the larynx and ear bones. During an interlude we were treated to some warm soup and sean nós dancing where one of the low-loaders provided a convenient stage.

The bones were taken to a nearby farm where they were laid down in order in a heap of manure and covered in plastic for composting. This is the most effective way to remove the remaining flesh and grease from the bones. In about year's time, with the help of whatever funding we can muster-up, we will reconstruct the skeleton locally. I imagine this will be done with the same spirit and enthusiasm as the de-boning process!

The support of the Heritage Officer, Siobhan Ryan was I think a critical difference in this and the Sperm whale in Dungarvan, which ended up being disposed of. The Raghly community demonstrated

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