TIERRA VERDE — About 100 yards from the beach, under a broiling May sun, a team of scientists worked steadily at excavating a dead body. When two small backhoes couldn't pull it out of the grave, a larger machine rumbled in and tried tugging it out. The crowd began to cheer — then went "Ohhhhh" when the tail snapped off.
John Ososky, who was there to take the body away for the Smithsonian Institution, shook his head. This was what he'd been afraid would happen. He was particularly concerned about keeping the 8-foot by 4-foot skull intact, too.
The body belonged to a rare 38-foot Bryde's (pronounced "BROO-duss") whale that the scientists had buried at Fort De Soto back in February to let the flesh rot away. On Tuesday, Ososky, the Smithsonian's collections manager, was there to supervise its exhumation so he could take the skeleton, or try to.
The rare whale, part of a population of about 30 Bryde's whales that live in the Gulf of Mexico, had washed ashore at Everglades National Park at the end of January. The Bryde's whales of the gulf are so rare that last month the federal government declared them to be endangered, despite opposition from the offshore drilling industry.
Denise Boyd of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who led the team of scientists who examined the dead body, said they found a 2-inch square of sharp-edged plastic inside its third stomach. There were signs that after the whale had swallowed this hard plastic square, it had sliced its way through the first two stomachs, leading to the whale's eventual death. She said they found nothing else wrong with it.
Once the scientists were done examining the whale four months ago, Everglades officials wanted to tow it back out to sea. But Boyd and others worked out a way to load the young male whale onto a truck and haul it across the state, to its burial ground at Fort De Soto. They also worked out plans for Ososky to retrieve it.
Bryde's whales in general are somewhat mysterious. Ososky said no scientist has ever had a full description of them that was peer-reviewed and published. The ones in the gulf are sufficiently different from Bryde’s whales that they are a new subspecies and possibly a whole new species, said Erin Fougeres of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"Considering all the complications and threats in the gulf, you can see why this population is in trouble," Ososky said.
Bryde's whales are named after Johan Bryde, a Norwegian man who built the first whaling stations in South Africa. The whales have long, slender bodies up to 55 feet long. When they leap from the water they look, in the words of the British Daily Mail newspaper, "like an enormous eel flying through the air."
The scientists began digging up the dead whale about 8:15 a.m. Tuesday, helped along by a pair of small backhoes. Once they uncovered the corpse, it was nearly impossible to avoid the smell of putrefaction that enveloped the site. Nevertheless two scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Jessica Blackburn and Rebeccah Hazelkorn, clambered down into the pit with a pair of shovels to help Ososky excavate around the body.
"We knew it was going to be a gross experience," said Boyd, who also spent some time standing in the muddy goo at the bottom of the pit.
Fort De Soto's chief park ranger, Mike Agliano, showed up about three hours into the dig. He said this was one of seven whales buried at the park, and joked that people keep burying whales there because the resorts and hotels won't let them check in.
After watching the small backhoes trying to tug the body out of the pit using a large yellow sling wrapped around the tail, he volunteered to let the team use one of the park's larger earth-movers. Once that machine growled to life and began tugging on the sling, the whale slid backwards up out of the pit — but then the tail snapped off.
Ososky, undeterred, snapped out a few orders for a new approach, and then told everyone he expected them to finish by the end of the day. Sure enough, by 5 p.m. the team had been able to pull out the skull he wanted so badly, and expected to provide him with nearly all of the rest of the skeleton too.
A U-Haul trailer awaited the whale's remains, to be hauled to a facility in North Carolina called "Bonehenge" where it would be put into a compost heap full of horse manure, hay and wood chips, he said. That will finish cleaning the flesh off the bones.
Once that's done, he said, then the skeleton can be added to the Smithsonian's collection and used as the "type specimen" for scientists to study and compare to other whales.
Fifteen years ago, Ososky had a chance to collect another Bryde's whale skeleton, but kept only the skull and a few ribs and "it's haunted me ever since," he said. "We knew it was a weird whale, but we didn't understand that it was a unique species."
That's why he was so determined to get the whole thing this time, explaining, "The way this population is going, I don't know that I'll ever get another chance."
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.