BAR HARBOR, Maine — Sometimes, life is not pretty. Death can be even uglier.
And when a 50-foot-long animal dies, decomposes and then is cut apart with sharp knives, it can be especially offensive to the senses.
But that did not stop several dozen people, many of them clad in protective white suits and face masks, on Monday from getting close enough to see — and smell — a rotting sperm whale that had been dragged up on a beach in the local village of Hulls Cove. Sometimes, aesthetics take a back seat to science.
In the name of science, education and preservation, the dead male sperm whale was being dissected. Allied Whale, a marine mammal research organization affiliated with College of the Atlantic, has had the carcass since the animal was found last week floating off Schoodic Point.
By performing a necropsy on the sperm whale, which like all whales is protected by federal law, researchers with Allied Whale and COA are hoping to find out why it died. The whale is believed to have been between 20 and 30 years old, and there is no obvious sign of trauma that would explain why it died. As of Monday morning, researchers still had not found any clues about its cause of death.
Beyond determining how the animal died and whether humans might be to blame, COA hopes to clean and reassemble its skeleton and then to put it on display in a new Bar Harbor Whale Museum, which does not yet have a home.
Sean Todd, chairman of COA’s marine sciences department and director of Allied Whale, said the dead whale likely weighs 100,000 pounds. The head alone, he added, probably weighs around 30,000 pounds.
“It was a male. At that size and weight it makes the animal not quite — but almost — fully grown,” he said. “It was probably reproductively mature.”
The whale probably had not successfully reproduced, Todd added, because it still would have been dominated by older males that would have prevented it from mating with females.
Sperm whales usually are found far offshore in deep water, where they feed, Todd said. But it is possible the whale followed squid in closer to shore before it died.
“We’re seeing some unusual levels of squid this year,” he said. “That is this animal’s favorite food.”
According to Todd, sperm whale necropsies are especially challenging because the creatures are not easy to dissect. He said Monday’s effort was COA’s second sperm whale necropsy in the past half dozen years.
“The sperm whale represents the mother of all whale [dissections] because they are so heavy,” he said. “They are so dense. It’s a phenomenal animal.
They’re chunky, they’re big, they’re greasy. You have to be very well prepared for an event like this”
Todd said the Bar Harbor Whale Museum, which is owned and operated by COA, is on “hiatus” while it searches for a new home. He said Ocean Properties had provided space rent-free to the museum where the resort firm’s new West Street Hotel recently opened. The company owns the property in Hulls Cove where Monday’s necropsy was taking place, he added.
“The museum is currently in storage,” Todd said. “The skeleton really is in marvelous condition for an animal this size. We want that to be a flashpoint for fundraising and to get donors interested in helping us find a new building for the place.”
Dan DenDanto, a COA alumnus and a research associate with Allied Whale, said the group’s plan was to complete the dissection in one day and to leave the beach as clean as possible. The flesh of the whale will be composted on MDI, he said, while the bones will be cleaned of tissue with a similar composting process.
DenDanto is expected to oversee the bone-cleansing and skeleton rearticulation process. Besides assisting Allied Whale with its research of live and recently deceased whales, DenDanto has a business rearticulating whale skeletons for museums across the country.
DenDanto said sperm whales are especially oily and that cleaning and draining a sperm whale skeleton of oil — the substance that whale hunters once were after — can take a long time. Some skeletons that have been on display for a couple of years have been known to continue to drip oil, he said.
“They can leach oil for a long, long time if they are not degreased properly,” he said.
DenDanto, who lives on Mount Desert Island said he has a method of boiling the bones in detergent solution in a large, fabricated cauldron to leach the bones of oil. He said that just boiling the bones, not all of which can be boiled at once, can take days.
“It can leach oil forever if you don’t evacuate the oils.”
He said he expected the oil-leaching process would take two or three months.
Despite the smell, a couple of COA students said Monday that they appreciated getting close to the whale and helping to dissect it. Maya Critchfield, a first-year student from Casco, was taking pictures of the process for Allied Whale to keep on file as documentation.
“It’s really interesting,” Critchfield said. “I’ve never been next to something dead this big.”
Erickson Smith, a second-year student from Boston, said he participated in necropsies of smaller marine mammals and earlier this summer helped dissect a humpback whale calf.
The sperm whale, he said, was the biggest animal he has helped dissect.
“I guess I’m here primarily because it’s fun. I really enjoy it,” he said. “I’m definitely much more of a hands-on learner. I’d much rather feel the ribs and see how high they are rather than seeing a diagram in a PowerPoint presentation.”
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.