The South Australian Museum has the best collection of whales and dolphins in Australia. This reputation resulted from the hard work and love of workers in the museum’s skeletal preparation facilities who were willing to wrestle with the stinging smell of animal rotten meat to be preserved.
A blend of moldy cheese, rotten meat and seaweed can describe the familiar smell in the South Australian Museum’s skeletal preparation facilities.
Located on the Bolivar north of Adelaide – next to the largest sewage treatment plant in the city of Adelaide it is a place to process dead carcasses of whales and dolphins before being picked up and preserved by their skeletons to be stored as part of the South Australian museum collection.
Collection manager David Stemmer was found processing a rare finding, the carcass of a complete juvenile humpback almost 12 meters long.
A whale of this size only goes to museum collections every two or three years.
His corpse humpback whale was found stranded on the beach near Robe on the coast of South Australia almost two weeks earlier.
The animal preservation process – which will weigh around 15 tons starts with a non-trivial job to bring it to the facility in the first place.
“All parts of the humpback whale will be cut into pieces for several days, literally bone by bone will be taken from the whale, then transported back to a large trailer, a car trailer in this case,” Stemmer said.
These humpback whales were swept near Robe, on the coast of South Australia, before being taken by the South Australian museum to be their collection. (Supplied: Department of Environment and Water)
From there, as much meat as possible is removed, and what is left is soaked in water in a maceration tank for months.
After that the process continued with the cleaning and cataloging stages, where the entire process is expected to take up to two years.
The facility at the South Australian Museum is world-class and unique in Australia, with half a dozen indoor barrels heated to 35 degrees, and one large maceration or immersion sample outside the heated room during the summer.
Other museums have to use more basic techniques, such as burying carcasses in the grasslands and waiting for samples to rot naturally.
“It takes longer and there is a possibility that you will lose some bones or coccyx when you dig a year later,” Stemmer said.
Besides whales and dolphins, the South Australian museum also prepares skeletons for other animals, including turtles, birds, kangaroos, lizards, and snakes.
Immune to stinging smell
David Stemmer said he worked on this work by chance, after starting the assignment in the museum as a volunteer.
“This is something you have not learned at university, there is no course,” he said.
“I have been shown a number of things by my predecessors and over time I work on various techniques myself and improve the process.”
He quickly acknowledged that this was an unusual job, with some unique scents.