The feat of collecting and making specimens at the Institute of Oceanography

During the past 100 years, scientists have collected more than 24,000 samples of marine life with over 5,000 species for display and storage at the Institute of Oceanography, Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology.

The specimen gallery in the Institute of Oceanography (Credit: Xuan Ngoc)

Fieldwork all over the country collecting specimens

The Institute of Oceanography has many people coming to visit in the days near Tet Holiday. At the showroom, Mr. Le Kha Phu (50 years old, Deputy Head of the Manufacturing and Exhibition Management Department) and his colleagues carefully examine the specimens. For many years in the profession, Mr. Phu used to travel from the North to the South to collect specimens and build many specimens. He said, in September 2010, people in Ganh Hao town (Dong Hai district, Bac Lieu province) discovered a black shark with white spots over 12m long, weighing 10 tons, pulled to the shore. This is a whale shark in group I, in the list of endangered and rare aquatic species. Fish are only exploited for the purpose of conservation, scientific research, and research to create initial seed sources, so the authorities of Bac Lieu province decided to keep the specimens for conservation and display.

When Mr. Phu and his colleagues arrived, the fish's skin was dry, the fish's frame was too large, making it difficult to display. At this time, the delegation of the Institute of Oceanography had to soak the fish in the lake or soak it in cotton soaked in water to make the skin softer. Every day they did a small part. At times, the members had to go inside the fish's skin for hours to stuff more than ten tons of cotton. At that time, the smell of formaldehyde penetrated the nose and eyes, everyone had to go out for a while before re-entering. After ten days of efforts, the prototype product was completed. In April 2013, the Vietnam Guinness Book of Records awarded the certificate of "the largest whale shark skin in Vietnam" to Lang Ong Nam Hai (Ganh Hao town).

Mr. Le Kha Phu introduced the specimen kept for many years. (Credit: Xuan Ngoc)

In addition to this specimen, Mr. Phu and his associates also made many other specimens. For example, in early 2019, the Phu Quoc Marine Protected Area Management Board received samples of leatherback turtles weighing about 200kg. This is the largest turtle in the world. The Institute of Oceanography was handed the turtle carcass for storage. At that time, Mr. Phu and his colleagues immediately brought the specimen back to the mainland, separated from the skin, soaked in formaldehyde for about 3 months to prevent decomposition. Then, they measured the size, stuffed the specimen into shape before putting it on the treated leather, and then set it up as a display template. “A model that is judged to be successful is when it looks like the real thing,” said Mr. Phu.

Meanwhile, whenever visitors are curious about the specimens on display, Ms. Vu Thi Lieu (41 years old, Department of Manufacturing and Exhibition Management) graciously introduces each species.

Ms. Vu Thi Lieu is introducing students to the exhibits. (Credit: Xuan Ngoc)

Since childhood, Ms. Lieu has loved the sea and all kinds of sea creatures. Her passion was forged even more when she entered the Institute of Oceanography to work. Every day, her main job is to preserve and process specimens. She regularly goes to check the glass jars containing the samples. If the bottle is yellow, replace it with a new one, or if the chemical is evaporated, add it. Every time the specimen was brought back, she fixed it to straighten it, then put chemicals in it to soak it for preservation. When she first started this job, when she came into contact with untreated animal carcasses, the smell was so strong that she wanted to vomit. "Through times like that, I wanted to give up, but I was encouraged and supported by my brothers and sisters, so I gained confidence to overcome," said Ms. Lieu.

Overcoming the waves to collect fish bones as a specimen

With nearly 30 years of experience in the study of mollusks and marine specimens, Mr. Bui Quang Nghi (59 years old, researcher) said that each species has its own characteristics, so there are different difficulties when making specimens. However, the time factor is the most important thing to create a specimen. When the animal dies, the first step is to receive it, it must be manipulated to keep the skin, so the new work will be beautiful. If left for a long time, the skin decomposes, only making bone slides, but in some cases of animals belonging to the cartilaginous layer that cannot keep the skin, they are helpless.

The female employee is checking the display sample. (Credit: Xuan Ngoc)

Mr. Nghi told about a special time he went to collect samples 4 years ago. In November 2018, a black whale carcass, white underbelly, weighing about 10 tons, 12m long with many tears on the body washed up on Son Duong Island (Ky Anh town, Ha Tinh). The fish has been dead for many days; the carcass was mostly decomposed. With a suitcase containing protective gear, masks, gloves, surgical tools including knives, scissors, chemicals and disinfectants, Mr. Nghi and his colleagues immediately set off. Arriving in Ha Tinh, it rained due to the influence of tropical depression. Amid strong winds, rough seas and high waves, ships could not leave, so they had to wait for the sea to calm down.

The next afternoon, when the wind was calm, the Border Guard ship brought the group of experts to the island, about 4 nautical miles from the shore. Arriving on the island, they walked for another 30 minutes to reach their destination. It was also dark, each strong wave pushed the fish away from the shore, leaving them unable to handle it. Everyone stayed at the Border Guard Station. It was morning, the rain stopped, the water receded. Mr. Nghi and his colleagues used all means to pull fish ashore and collect samples. At this time, the fish carcasses decomposed, the stench was strong, they wore two layers of masks and protective gear but still could not stand it. Along with that, the tool carried cannot penetrate the thick fish skin, making the job difficult. After two days, with the help of the Border Guard, they were able to butcher the fish. One by one, the bones fell apart, they gathered and moved to the shore. However, as soon as they reached the mainland, the villagers prevented them from taking the fish skeleton away. People asked to bring the skeleton back to the village communal house for a burial ceremony according to the customs of the sea. At this time, Mr. Nghi and his colleagues calmly presented documents proving that they were people from the Institute of Oceanography on duty. After more than an hour of persuasion, explaining the collection of fish bone samples for processing and restoration for scientific research, and saving the specimens for display, the people agreed.

A giant specimen in the Nha Trang Institute of Oceanography (Credit: Xuan Ngoc)

Institute of Oceanography (formerly the Indochina Department of Oceanography and Fisheries established in 1922) is considered the leading marine research facility in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. It holds tens of thousands of marine specimens with more than 5,000 species collected over the past 100 years.

Translated by Phuong Ha
Link to Vietnamese version

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