On my last foray in Japan, I was able to partake in one of the Sendai area’s culinary specialties – whale. Now I didn’t have to harvest and process the whale myself, and while eating whale was on my Japan bucket list, I have no interest in obtaining whale meat for myself.
However, I have had occasion over the last forty-odd years to field-dress a bunch of big-game critters, from javelina and antelope to elk. It’s a messy process. So, imagine doing the same with a whale. Ugh. Excerpt:
“First, we opened the whale to expose the lungs, intestines, and liver,” (marine biologist Aymara) Zegers explains. Fluids gushed from the incisions, forced out by the immense weight of overlying flesh. The team sampled the fluids, as well as tissues and stomach contents. “These can help determine the possible cause of death, for example as a result of heavy metals or microplastics or red tide organisms,” says Zegers.
The team also took skin for DNA testing and examined the whale’s ovaries. Although the ovaries were small, another indication that the whale was not yet fully mature, she was starting to ovulate—a sign that the young whale was moving into her reproductive phase and therefore of generally good health.
Now, with the necropsy complete, the defleshing team can get to work. Whale strandings are unpredictable events that cannot be programmed into schedules or budgets. Most of the workers are friends of the museum crew, volunteering time and muscle to this stinkiest of tasks in exchange for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The museum does not have access to flensing knives, the best tools for the job, so instead the volunteers use cheap kitchen knives that Zegers purchased on her way out of town.
The goal over the coming days is to remove as much of the flesh as possible. Then they will carve the skeleton into parcels of manageable size for transport to the museum. Some bones, such as the jawbones, parts of the skull, and the ribs, will separate from one another naturally. Other sections, such as the vertebrae, will be cut up by hand.
Have a read, examine the photos and video, and imagine that. Now bear in mind that this is a reasonably fresh carcass; imagine one that has been fermenting a while, which I suppose cetacean biologists probably also have to deal with from time to time. I imagine “ew” just doesn’t quite cover it.
I sure don’t envy these folks.
Now the whale I ate in Japan (OK, I didn’t eat the whole thing) was caught and processed by a “research” vessel that had, I feel certain, powered hoists, power tools and experienced staff. Also the whales taken by Japanese fisheries are minkes, which are unlike blue whales in being smaller and much, much more plentiful. I wouldn’t be have eaten blue whale; my personal preference is to eschew endangered species. Minkes aren’t. They are basically the cows of the sea.
But no matter what tools you have to hand, this is a huge, bloody job. I admire the dedication of these cetacean biologists who undertook this enormous task. My Stetson’s off to them.