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March 3, 2015

It is reasonable to expect to see blue whales in the deep, cold inshore waters of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Blue whales – the largest of all existing animals and, at 170 tonnes, the heaviest animals to ever exist – even close to the shallow, warm waters of the Bay of Quinte?

The answer is yes.

Ten metres from the shore of the Bay of Quinte and 2,350 kilometres from where they left their former home – the Atlantic Ocean – lie the skeletal remains of two 26-metre long blue whales. On a sunny and cool August day, the faint smell of rotting flesh hinted to their presence before they came into view.

Three 48-foot shipping containers full of whale skeletons sat in the lot, and on the gravel beside the containers were two five-metre-long blue whale jawbones, a small pile of decomposing organs, and a slightly pile of baleen – the comb-like filter inside the mouths of baleentype whales that allows them to extract very small krill that are their basic food supply. All lying very quietly – six months removed from the onslaught of national media coverage that greeted their arrival on the shores of Newfoundland – just outside of Research Casting International Limited’s (RCIL) 45,000 square foot state-of-the-art production facility at 15 Dufferin Avenue in Quinte West.

How do two blue whales end up shores of the Bay of Quinte? The answer is by truck and hard work. May, the owner of RCIL explained, the whales started their voyage to Trenton in March 2014 when he received calls from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN).

The blue whales had been trapped in the ice and washed up on the shores of Trout River and Rocky Harbour – towns separated by approximately 60 kilometres – on the west coast of Newfoundland. The ROM and MUN saw these dead whales as opportunities to expand their collections. In May 2014, a six-person RCIL crew arrived at Trout River. Their task? Bring the skeleton of a 26-metre-long blue whale to Quinte West. Over a two-and one-half week period, the crew arranged for a local fishing trawler to tow the whale carcass to Woody Point –midway between Trout River and Rocky Harbour – so it could be hauled out of the water. Using backhoes, winches, and flensing tools, the crew stripped the flesh, blubber, and organs from the carcass, arranged to have all the whale viscera trucked to a local landfill and then packed the skeletal remains into a shipping container for the trip to Quinte West. In June 2014, another six-person RCIL crew arrived at Rocky Harbour and over a two-week period repeated the process to deliver a second blue whale to RCIL. Over the next couple of years, all of these skeletal remains will become two shiny whale skeletons designed to fascinate and inform people who visit the ROM and MUN.

The first step in the process of converting a pile of whalebones into a high quality museum display involves composting the remains to remove any soft tissue still clinging to the skeletons. According to Peter, this will involve filling the shipping containers with a combination of cow manure and sawdust so the skeletons can be cleaned without removing them from the containers. Once the composting stage has been completed, the skeletons will be degreased to remove all of the oils and fats embedded in them. Next the whale vertebrae, fins, skull, and jaw bones will be reassembled, “Much like threading pearls on a string,” explained Peter. The pearls being huge pieces of the world’s largest living animal, the string being metal rods holding all those large pieces together. Peter estimates it will be at least a couple of years before the ROM and MUN receive their finished whale skeletons.

Why do two blue whales end up in Quinte West?

The answer lies in the trajectory of Peter’s life. Peter was born in 1955 in Oldham, Lancashire, England, the son of a gas appliance salesman. In 1964, Peter and his family – seeking nothing less than a better life – immigrated to Canada and settled in Hamilton. In 1977, Peter graduated from the University of Guelph with a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts, majoring in sculpture. Studying sculpture was, “Just a natural  progression,” simplified Peter. He had always built things as a kid and was enrolled in arts programs throughout junior and high school. The same year he graduated, Peter was hired as a vertebrate paleontological technician by the ROM in Toronto, prior to which Peter had no idea about paleontology and the large animal bones that would become a big part of his life and the business of RCIL. Peter’s next stop in his paleontological career was the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. From 1981 to 1986, he worked as a paleontological technician, directing the construction of skeletons for the museum and then maintaining the dinosaurs in the collection and managing the museum’s field program for the collection of dinosaurs. In 1986, Peter returned to the ROM as chief paleontological technician. While working in Toronto at the ROM, Peter formed RCIL. By 1987, in addition to his work at the ROM, Peter had gathered up $1.3 million worth of private dinosaur exhibit construction contracts. He incorporated RCIL and opened its first production facility at the corner of Dupont and Bathurst Streets in Toronto.  Production requirements very quickly exceeded the space available at RCIL’s Toronto facilities, so Peter moved production to two locations in Oakville. Once again, requirements very quickly exceeded the space available in Oakville so RCIL moved to a 28,000 square foot facility in Beamsville. By 1991, what had started as part-time job at RCIL had become a fulltime endeavour, so Peter resigned from his position at the ROM.

By 2006, RCIL outgrew its Beamsville facility. Peter needed to find a bigger production facility at a good price. As good fortune would have it his wife, Terry Legault-May, had always dreamed of returning to eastern Ontario to be close to her family in the Perth, Prescott, and Brockville area. Peter contacted Chris King of the Quinte Economic Development Commission and very quickly realized the vacant 45,000 square foot warehouse at 15 Dufferin Avenue in Quinte West met all of RCIL’s requirements. By the end of 2006, RCIL was operating out of its current Quinte West facility.

When asked to sum up all that RCIL does, Peter stated, “Building custom exhibits for museums throughout the world.” One of the most striking pieces of equipment at RCIL is a five-axis router – a machine consisting of a large, vertically mounted electric motor driving a 70-centimetre-long routerbit through blocks of polystyrene. The movements of the router bit are computer controlled and convert digital files into three-dimensional objects such as dinosaur vertebrae. When all of the vertebrae, jaw and skull pieces of an animal, such as a dinosaur, have been carved by the five-axis router, the craftsmen of RCIL finish, paint, and string together all the parts to create the skeletal dinosaurs displayed at museums such as the ROM. The operation of the five-axis router and the work of the RCIL crews in recovering the blue whale skeletons from Newfoundland point to two of the three principal types of work performed by RCIL. First, constructing skeletal museum displays of large animals such as whales and dinosaurs by fabricating and then stringing together their bones and second, constructing skeletal museum displays of large animals by stringing together real bones gathered from the ocean or the earth. The third principal type of work performed by RCIL involves producing castings of surfaces such as the fossil cast of Mistaken Point on the southeastern tip of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula – the site of the world’s oldest ecosystem. This casting, on display at the ROM, is also the largest fossil cast of its type in the world.

There are few indicators the nondescript – it does not even have the company name on the outside of the building – metal siding and concrete block warehouse at the very end of Dufferin Avenue is a facility producing a high-grade product in demand all over the planet. One look at RCIL’s current order book confirms it to be in high demand.

In addition to the two blue whales for the ROM and MUN, RCIL is currently working on three other projects. It is building a full-size spinosaurus (a large, carnivorous dinosaur with a head like a crocodile) skeleton for a National Geographic Society travelling exhibit, constructing 12 dioramas (including a deep-sea hydrothermal vent) for the Shanghai Natural History Museum, and a four year project involving remounting and refurbishing 60 specimens from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

The story of Peter May and RCIL is one small part of the story of the success of Canada. It is the story of an immigrant kid who turns his study of sculpture into a very productive, fulltime career in paleontology and then turns this full-time career into a private enterprise employing 20 people on a payroll of approximately $1 million.

In its 27 years of operation RCIL has produced more than 1,000 custom exhibits for museums all over the world, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History to the Paleo Museum in Oslo to the National Science Museum in Tokyo to the New Zealand Museum in Wellington.

Peter May and his team have placed Quinte West on the map as a centre of world-class craftsmanship. And brought blue whales to the Bay of Quinte.

Tags: Research Casting International

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