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No 'bones' about it

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As a boy growing up on Rainy Lake, Chris Stinson always had been fascinated by the water and what lay beneath it.

He was an avid outdoor adventurer and animal-lover, and enjoyed catching small frogs and bird-watching.

At that age, he never would have guessed he'd become best friends with an 85-foot-long, 80,000-kg beast.

Stinson, a curatorial assistant of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver, now takes care of Canada's largest blue whale on display.

After graduating from Fort High in 1997, Stinson knew he wanted to head to the west coast. So he enrolled in the animal biology program at the University of British Columbia (UBC), packed his bags, and ventured off to complete his undergraduate degree.

Stinson said his early years in B.C. consisted of plenty of volunteer work to get his foot in the door.

That's how he found himself on the northern coast of Prince Edward Island in the spring of 2008, where the most famous discovery at his current place of work was unearthed.

Stinson worked for the Beaty Biodiversity Museum before it was open as plans for the museum and exhibits were in the works.

During the planning, UBC professor Andrew Trites suggested they get a blue whale to hang in the entrance of the museum.

It just so happened there was one buried in Nail Pond, P.E.I., which had washed up on the shore in 1987.

The beast had been moved there from the beach to help better preserve its decomposing body.

A crew, including Stinson, travelled to P.E.I. to begin exhuming the massive skeleton.

“Most of my time there was as a volunteer," he recalled. "I was happy to help in any way I could.”

Over just 10 days, the team was able to dig up the skeleton, which still was encased in rotting flesh and rancid blubber.

They used pickaxes and shovels to peel away the remaining skin to expose the bones.

“It smelled pretty bad,” Stinson chuckled.

“But it was a pretty amazing experience to kneel inside of a whale that had washed up on the shore in the '80s,” he added.

A team of about 100 people dug up the whale, with a documentary crew close by at all times to film the endeavour (Stinson appears in The Discovery Channel's documentary, “Raising Big Blue,” a few times).

After unearthing the bones, the crew pressure-washed them, assessed them, and took pictures.

Then the skeleton was loaded on a CN Rail car for a first-class trip to Victoria, B.C., where it would be cleaned and prepared for display.

“Almost every bone had damage because whale bones aren't particularly dense,” Stinson explained.

“It probably died from a ship strike.”

The process to ready the skeleton for display was a lengthy one, Stinson noted. Whale bones are very porous and oily, so it had to soak in a bath filled with a special bacteria that would digest the oils.

The whale's jawbone was so large, in fact, that it had to have a tank custom made for it.

Finally in the fall of 2010, 23 years after it had washed ashore and two years after it had been dug out of the ground, the blue whale finally was unveiled to the public.

As the curatorial assistant of mammals at the museum, it's Stinson's job to take care of the skeleton referred to in the documentary as “Big Blue.”

He's been with it throughout its whole journey from coast to coast.

“The skeleton came together to look so amazing,” he enthused.

Stinson organized its cleaning in 2015, five years after the skeleton had been suspended for display, as it required a few minor upgrades.

“There were a few hairline fractures that needed to be fixed,” he noted.

“It also needed to be dusted.”

He also said it was repainted and covered in a UV-resistant coating.

Stinson was able to get on full-time with the museum not only because of his credentials, but for his massive amount of volunteer work.

His daily duties include working with the collections and sorting them, as the museum constantly is receiving new specimens.

Stinson said he deals with all sorts of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

One of his more interesting projects in the works deals with replicas of dinosaur tracks that will be installed in the museum by year's end.

The last time Stinson was in Fort Frances was almost three years ago. At one point, five generations of his family lived here, but now most have gone their separate ways.

“What I miss most about Fort Frances is the winter,” he said.

“There isn't much winter in Vancouver," he added. ”Yeah, you can drive up to the mountains but it's not the same.

“I miss watching birds eat out of the feeder in the winter time.”

Stinson's love for animals and biology fuels his work ethic.

“I'm fascinated by the sheer number of species in the world,” he marvelled.

“Whenever you flip over a log, there's something new.”

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