It was the end of sophomore year in college, and I was looking for an interesting way to spend the summer and earn a little money. I stumbled across an ad for a summer job at the Ontario Science Center in Toronto that sounded fascinating—reconstructing the skeleton of a sixty-foot fin whale that had stranded the previous summer in Nova Scotia. I knew nothing about whales, but the concept of marine biology sounded pretty good to a kid who grew up in the middle of Canada. I had watched enough Jacques Cousteau specials on TV to understand that a career in marine biology involved spending most of one’s life underwater in exotic locations and drinking gallons of red wine.

I was lucky enough to be invited for an interview, in which a charming young woman asked whether I knew anything about whales. I responded that we had just covered them in my “Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy” class. In fairness, it was not a completely untruthful statement, as I recall the word “whale” being used at least once in that class. To my great surprise, I was offered the job and told to report to the Science Center in early May.

On my first day of work, I was driven north of the city to an open field. I got out of the truck and looked around for the skeleton. My new boss, who suddenly seemed considerably less charming, pointed to the ground. It turned out that the whale had been buried over the winter, and my job was to dig up the skeleton, clean the bones, and prepare them for rearticulation and display. It was at this point that I perhaps should have admitted to not knowing anything about whales and to having no familiarity with the cranes and backhoes that would be necessary to do the job. But I decided to wait and see what the experience of exhuming a dead whale would be like.

In a couple of weeks, we had arranged for all the heavy equipment to be brought on site, and the excavation began. When the skeleton began to appear, it was clear that it had been only partially cleaned before burial. Pieces of putrid flesh hung from each bone. I had never smelled anything so awful in my entire life, and that evening I emptied an entire subway car on my way home from work.

I was at a crossroads—the idea of spending my summer scraping decaying flesh off whale bones was a distinctly unpleasant prospect, and I wondered whether I should quit. But the whale was fascinating. As we uncovered it, bit by bit, the enormous skeleton seemed too big to be real—each jawbone was almost twenty feet long and had to be lifted by a crane. None of the bones looked like anything I had encountered in my anatomy class.

On rainy days, I began to read about whales and their fifty-million-year evolutionary journey from animals that walked on land. I discovered that the college I was attending—the University of Guelph—was the premier academic center for the study of marine mammals in Canada. And each day, as we scraped and cooked the bones in an enormous cauldron, the smell was a little less awful. Or maybe I just got used to it.

By the end of the summer, the die was castI wanted to study whales. I went on to major in marine biology and saw my first live fin whale on a field course on the east coast of Canada. I was awed by the size, speed, and grace of that huge animal as it cruised past me. And I remembered each bone in the skeleton we had exhumed.

Although I started out in the stinkiest way possible, I have been fortunate to enjoy a long career in the company of whales. And if you ever find yourself in Toronto with a couple of hours to spare, you can visit my whale at the Ontario Science Center. She is beautiful.


Read is the director of the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, the Stephen A. Toth Professor of marine biology, and chair of the Nicholas School of the Environment's Division of Marine Science and Conservation.

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