UPDATE (May 19, 2017):

After years of work, the preserved whale heart featured in this article (read below) has gone on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. The huge creature it once belonged to washed up dead at Rocky Harbour on the western edge of Newfoundland back in 2014.

It took nearly six months just to plastinate the gigantic organ, a process that involves draining the tissue of fat and water, then replacing those fluids with silicone rubber.

This preservation technique was brought into the public eye by the Body Worlds exhibit, which has seen 200 plastinated animals travel the globe over the past few years. And just like those inside-out specimens, ROM's blue whale heart will now remain intact – and relatively stink free! – for centuries to come. 

Image: Royal Ontario Museum/Facebook
Image: Royal Ontario Museum/Facebook
Image: Royal Ontario Museum/Facebook
Image: Royal Ontario Museum/Facebook


You’ve probably heard claims that a blue whale’s heart is the size of a car, and that their aortas are big enough to double as water slides. Amazing, right? Well, it turns out the folks that came up with those comparisons may have stretched the truth just a little. But to prove them wrong, scientists had to actually get their hands on a heart.

When two blue whales washed up in Canada last summer, researchers from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), eager to learn more about the world’s biggest animal, grabbed their fleshing knives and headed for the beach. A skeleton from one of the carcasses is set to be preserved for display in the museum, while the other, found at Rocky Harbour on the western edge of Newfoundland, gave its heart to science.

"During some field work, I was continually asked how big a blue whale's heart is," Mark Engstrom, interim director and CEO at the ROM, told CBC Radio's Corner Brook Morning Show. "So what we decided to do with the Rocky Harbour whale was to dissect the heart, and to preserve it and be able to show it, so that when people ask how big a blue whale heart is, we can point to it."

This is the first time that a blue whale heart has been preserved, and removing the mass of muscle was no easy feat. Thousands of dollars worth of equipment was needed to extract the 180-kilogram (400 pound) organ, which was then chilled and sent to a freezer in Ontario for preservation.

When the research team was ready to tackle the mammoth task, they thawed the frozen heart, snipped and plugged the vessels, and pumped it full of liquid to return it to its former shape. The preservation process required over 1,000 litres of formaldehyde.

Myths about the blue whale’s heart size could quickly be debunked. “It's big, but it's smaller than people have suggested — not quite as big as a Volkswagen,” Engstrom points out. And as for playing slip 'n slide in the aorta, well, you’d have to be pretty skinny – the valve is only about as big as a child’s head.

Despite the heart not shaping up to be as big as some had previously thought, it’s still the largest heart in the world, and researchers hope that it will continue to reveal secrets about these massive whales.

The heart is scheduled to go on display at ROM sometime in 2017.

Top header image: Michael Bamford, Flickr