As workers began exhuming the rotten remains of a blue whale from the red P.E.I. earth, a rumour began to circulate that one of the massive flippers was AWOL.

The whale’s skeleton — the largest in Canada and fourth largest in the world — was unveiled Thursday in its entirety at the opening of the University of B.C.’s Beaty Biodiversity Centre.

“We thought it was just a nasty rumour,” said Andrew Trites, who led the blue whale project.

“Then we got to that piece and saw the chainsaw marks.”

Two decades earlier, a souvenir hunter had dug into the earth and had hacked through the radius and ulna and removed the whale’s left flipper.

The crew was stunned. The giant skeleton, which was planned as the centrepiece of UBC’s new $50-million museum and research centre, was short one massive limb.

Trites said the team went “cold case,” planting stories in local papers and trying to jog fading memories. Their efforts paid off. One day a man showed up at the dig site and nervously began pacing around the open pit.

The man claimed he had found the flipper after it had fallen off a truck. He had taken it home, kept one of the large bones above his fireplace and tossed the rest of the stinky mess into an overgrown woody area between two potato fields.

The man led Trites to the site and together the pair dug through the leaves and dirt with their bare hands and recovered the entire flipper.

“When we left ... he reached out to the one bone that he had kept for 20 years and he said, ‘Goodbye bone. You’re going to go on a big trip now. I hope I see you again one day.’”

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