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Saturday , August 24 2019

Patented success for a whale-of-a-job

Husain Al Sayegh (left), and Abdullah Al Sayed Omar, with the skeleton of Mina the whale, on display in the lobby of PAAAFR headquarters in Rabia.

Mina a milestone … no bones

To say that marine biologist Husain Al Sayegh is not afraid to take on a whale of a project is a huge understatement. For in actual fact, the PAAAFR Fisheries Laboratory Supervising Director accepted the monumental task of processing two whales that were found dead in Kuwaiti waters in the summer of 2015, and preserving and reassembling their skeletons.

The groundbreaking work involved many months of hard manual labor outdoors, enduring sweltering heat and noxious odours from decaying flesh and oily bones as well as acrid fumes from chemicals. At the same time it was a delicate process involving the utmost care for the fragile bones, the highest respect for the magnificent creatures, and scientific research and improvisation that took the process of cleaning whale bones to a whole new level. By the time Husain had cleaned and reassembled the skeleton of the second whale he had developed a method that was new to science and later earned him a patent with the US patent office.

The first whale was found floating near Qaruh Island by the Coast Guard on Aug 23, 2015. “She died a day before I went on my honeymoon, so I called her Asal, which means honey in Arabic,” says Husain. “It took almost two weeks to remove her because of the currents and the location, so by the time I came back from my trip she was at the fisheries lab.

 “She had actually floated away, was lost at sea for a week, and finally found after a search by helicopter. Sharks and other animals had been eating her and she came to the lab missing a lot of her skeleton.”

Both dead whales recovered from the sea that summer were Bryde’s whales, considered to be one of the great whales, along with blue whales and humpbacks. Classified as an endangered species, Bryde’s whales are named after Johan Bryde, a Norwegian who built the first whaling stations in South Africa in the early twentieth century.

According to Husain, Asal was approximately ten meters long and there was no obvious cause of death. She was interred in the grounds of the Public Authority for Agricultural Affairs and Fish Resources (PAAAFR) Fisheries Laboratory in Amghara, while Husain researched published protocols on how to preserve a whale skeleton. An expert in coral diseases with a Master’s degree in Marine Biology and PhD in Marine Geology and Geophysics in progress, Husain handles a wide range of duties in his work at the lab. Preserving whale skeletons, however, was an unprecedented challenge.

After six weeks, Husain dug up the whale carcass. The soil was salty and dry and he found the whale tissue mummifying and the bones brittle. Using knives and hatchets he cut away at the foul-smelling flesh, working in the sweltering heat in the shade of a disused animal pen at the Fisheries Laboratory.

Following the published protocols on whale articulation, Husain removed the bones from the flesh and washed and boiled them in an enormous caldron. Whale bones have an extremely strong, putrid smell. They’re spongy, porous, and full of oil and this is what gives them their buoyancy, he explains. No matter how many times he washed the bones he could not get rid of the smell.

Throughout this labor-intensive endeavor, Husain was enthusiastically assisted by Biology Researcher Abdullah Al Sayed Omar. “Abdullah was with me from day one, doing whatever it took to get the job done,” Husain remarks. “Like me, he believed that preserving the whale skeletons was entirely worth all the effort.”

After letting the whale bones dry in the sun the painstaking task of reassembling them began, made more difficult by the fact that many bones were missing. Eventually Asal was put on display in the lobby of PAAAFR headquarters in Rabia, but people complained about the smell, Husain reports, and she was eventually moved further afield, to Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Heritage Village in Salmi.

It was just a month after Asal was found that another Bryde’s whale was discovered floating in the shipping lane just outside Shuwaikh port, the victim of a ship collision. “She had propeller marks on her tail and her spinal column had been severed. At least it would have been a fairly swift death,” Husain says.

Husain called her Mina, which means port in Arabic. He estimates that the 45-ton, fifteen-meter long whale was between 45 to 50 years old and had come into the Arabian Gulf to feed. Unfortunately, ship collisions with whales are quite common, he explains, as the noise coming from a ship’s propeller is very similar to the sound that bounces off of fish. By the time the whale has recognised its error, it’s too late, and the encounter is usually fatal.

It took a few days before Mina was recovered and delivered to the Fisheries Laboratory. Kuwait Oil Company sent a barge to pick her up from the sea and take her back to Shuwaikh port. Cranes were used to hoist her onto a flatbed truck and then to unload her at the lab, where she was buried for one month. Then the exhausting and evil-smelling articulation process began.

“By the time I started with Mina I had learned a lot, but I realised the existing scientific knowledge was still not enough. I had to figure out a way to get rid of the smell,” says Husain.

This quest became an obsession, and for nine months Husain experimented with different methods. “I started searching for different chemicals that would work well with the high levels of lipids inside the whale bones. Finally I came up with a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and ammonia strong enough to clean the bones and remove the smell but gentle enough not to dissolve them,” Husain recalls.

Husain’s simply-stated solution was in fact a daring, experimental operation. Along with the risk of destroying the whale bones, inhaling the noxious chemicals could have damaged his lungs or caused him to lose consciousness.

Once again working in a shaded animal pen, Husain and Abdullah piled the bones into a huge water tank that had been cut in half. Husain put on several layers of biohazard protective clothing, an ammonia mask, and diving goggles. He then tied a rope around his waist, giving the other end to Abdullah and instructing him to drag him away from the tank in case he fainted.

By Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud

Special to the Arab Times

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