Sometimes a shipment requires more than some bubble wrap and a ‘fragile’ sticker. In the case of a blue whale heart shipped by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to Germany—and back— for preservation so it could be displayed to the public, the logistics involved were mind-boggling.
From the time that a pair of blue whales, from a group of nine entrapped in ice, washed ashore in Newfoundland in the spring of 2014, it was nearly three years until the heart and skeleton from the 90 metric ton creatures went on display in March of this year at the ROM’s exhibition entitled, “Out of the Depths: The Blue Whale Story.”
The 23-metre long skeleton was harvested from a blue whale which beached in Trout River, Newfoundland and Labrador, while the heart came from a second whale that washed up in Rocky Harbour in Gros Morne National Park. After a team from the ROM removed the heart, it was chilled and transported to Research Casting International (RCI) in Trenton, ON where is was frozen for nearly a year before being thawed—which took five days—prepped and packed for shipment to Gubener Plastinate GmbH, where it spent over a year undergoing a preservation technique known as plastination, before returning to Toronto.
According to Jacqueline Miller, a mammalogy technician with the ROM, who was involved in the process beginning on the beach in Newfoundland, the recommendation to use Kuehne + Nagel as the logistics expert came from Gubener, the company that invented the plastination technique and is best known for its Body Worlds exhibitions.
“They said [Kuehne + Nagel] was the best shipper that they had dealt with in shipping similar materials across Europe,” says Miller. “One of the reasons why we chose them was because of all of these specific details involved.
“It’s not every day a customs official will have a 400-pound whale heart to be inspected.”
As the dedicated project events manager, Trudy Nguyen, with Kuehne + Nagel Expo & Events Logistics in New Jersey, coordinated the time-sensitive cargo with airfreight and customs team members in Toronto and Germany.
“The shipment was closely monitored from initial collection through a tight delivery schedule with total commitment to the safe, temperature controlled environment required for handling the fragile organ,” she says.
“What made the entire shipping process so successful and move smoothly was the open communication between the ROM and Kuehne + Nagel,” adds Miller. “I could call Trudy directly and get a hold her at any time to discuss the little things that came up. This became even more important when dealing with customs, which can make or break the whole process.”
For the first leg of the heart’s trip, all modes of transport had to be booked and scheduled in advance, says Nguyen, due to the time-sensitive nature of the shipment. “We picked up the heart in the customer’s refrigerated crate at their warehouse Trenton, approximately two hours east of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and had it trucked straight to an awaiting cargo aircraft.”
Brian Boyle Royal Ontario Museum
Upon arrival to airline, the heart moved under temperature control flight from Toronto to Frankfurt airport. Upon arrival in Frankfurt, after an seven-hour temperature-controlled flight, the shipment cleared customs and was delivered directly to its final destination in Guben, near the Polish border.
Temperature was an important consideration because formaldehyde will precipitate or crystalize if it gets to cold, no longer acting as a preservative.
Over a year later, after receiving notification from the ROM that the heart was ready for its return journey, Kuehne + Nagel’s team was mobilized.
“Our customs colleague went to the airport around eight o’clock on a Sunday evening to ensure the heart cleared customs and was picked up early Monday morning and delivered to the ROM, so it could be unpacked and set up as part of the exhibition.”
It all sounds so simple, but preparing for the shipment of an organ from an endanger species that weighed over 400 pounds and was the size of a small freezer—about four feet by four feet—was a massive undertaking.
“The whole process was quite an adventure in many respects,” says Miller. “The shipment involved dangerous chemicals and organic tissue—organic tissue that is an endangered species—and all of these facets had their own leg of logistics that had to be addressed.”
The first step involved some luck.
“We were extraordinarily lucky with this blue whale to have a specimen that was not decomposed, that was still intact and still had, relative to the amount of time the animal had been dead, good structural integrity,” says Miller.
Researchers aren’t always so lucky, she points out, citing the recent right whale deaths near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. “I attended the scene of a right whale near PEI where we were able to prepare a skeleton, but were unable to recover the heart. It was too far gone.”
After being transported to Trenton, where it remained frozen for several months in RCI’s warehouse, the heart was thawed and the team began working as quickly as possible, racing against putrefaction by fixing it with formaldehyde A lot of formaldehyde.
“We used 700 gallons of formalin (37 per cent formaldehyde) to preserve the heart,” says Miller, adding that the chemical was diluted (4:1 and 7:1) several times during the procedure.
One of the biggest tasks, according to Miller was the amount of paperwork she had to do. Because of the chemicals used to preserve the heart and the fact that blue whales are an endangered species, very specific export and import permits were required.
“We were familiar with IATA guidelines for shipping volatile chemicals, which call for a heat-sealed, double-bag, with absorbent material in between the first and second bag in the event there is a leak,” explains Miller. That absorbent material was yards of cellulose void fill and 12 bags of Styrofoam peanuts.
“So, you translate that to something that is over 400 pounds and larger than several human beings, it becomes a much more difficult issue in terms of packing.”
It took eight people an entire work day to pack the heart into a purpose-built heavy-gauge stainless steel tank measuring five feet deep, five feet wide and six feet long. Prior to packing, the team spent several days plugging up all the major valves leading to and from the heart, using, “buckets, bottles, whatever fit. There is a toilet plunger in one them,” says Miller. Smaller openings were sutured and many of the larger ‘corks’ needed to be removed and stuffed with material for shipping, to the protect the heart.
To deal with the paper work challenges, Miller had to engage in some research, “because when you’re dealing with animal material, many countries will require evidence that you had a permit to collect this animal, particularly if it’s endangered.
“The most sensitive documentation was probably the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Most countries are on board, but every country has the liberty to dictate its own protocol. ”
Miller explains, that generally, the ROM uses a standardized scientific exchange permit for specimen loans between approved institutions that involve shipping endangered species. However, “because this was a new scientific acquisition, and not a loan, per say, both the ROM and Gubener had to apply for de novo exportation and importation permits.”
Another piece of paperwork was required to guarantee that no dangerous micro-organisms would be transferred along with the heart.
“It’s what they refer to as a zoo sanitation letter,” says Miller. “We had to do some research to ensure our formaldehyde treatment was sufficient and to provide evidence that treated like this the animal material wouldn’t pose any threat by importing it into the country.”
It sounds like overkill, but having this stuff done ahead of time helps smooth things over at the border, “because you’ve already addressed any potential questions that might come up.”
Once the whale arrived in Germany, its return date was up in air. “When we started nobody knew how long the process would take,” says Miller.
She says Gubener had done large items, but nothing like a blue whale heart, meaning they could only give an estimate on how long it might take. One factor that made a timeline unpredictable was the amount of fat in the heart.
“The heart had a lot more fat than anyone thought and fat that doesn’t plastinate as well,” explains Miller. “Because one of the steps in plastination requires dehydration using acetone [22,000 litres was used] and fat takes a long time to dehydrate, so it took a lot longer than we had anticipated.”
Before fat became an issue, the ROM had hoped to have the heart in time for the opening of the exhibition in March of 2107, but that turned out not to the case.
“We revised our schedule to having arrive July ,but we were incredibly lucky that [Gubener] were able to accelerate processes and we had on display in early May.”
In anticipation of its arrival, Miller and her boss—ROM CEO—Mark Engstrom, travelled to Germany in January to consult on the final stages of the heart’s preparation, which included deciding how much of the heart to dissect. In other words, how much of the inner workings of the heart did they want to expose.?
“The anatomist at Gubener, Dr. Vladimir Chereminskiy was great,” says Miller. “He would do a little bit of dissection and say to us, ‘See how good this is going to look?’ And he was right. He did a wonderful of job of giving us our entire heart, yet being able to expose enough of the inner vasculature to give it more of that wow factor.
“But for me the thing was to make people curious, which was what the exhibition was all about, making people more aware of the blue whale and its biology and being curious and asking questions and hopefully help us become better custodians of the ones we have left.”