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What to do with a whale skeleton?

May 11, 2009

What to do with a whale skeleton?

Dragging the arched five-foot jawbones of a gray whale out from the corner of a chicken coop in Lakewood, assistant professor of biology Mike Behrens saw the bones just didn’t match up.

Laying out three of the jawbones, which once belonged to a juvenile eschrichtius robustus which washed up dead on an Olympia beach three years ago, Behrens noted that there should only be two.

“I think we have a second whale here,” he laughed, as his two assistants endeavored to move a several-hundred – pound whale skeleton from the chicken coop – located at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife storage facility in Lakewood – to PLU earlier this year. He propped up the third – obviously older jawbone- in the corner, and then turned his attention to the other two. With a heave, these were placed in the back of a pickup. On to the next group of bones.

For two hours, Behrens, along with Audrey Thornburg, the Rieke Science Center’s biology lab manager, and Steve Benham, geosciences professor, sorted through a pile of bones. Patiently, they’d taken the vertebrae of the juvenile whale, piecing the 27-foot long backbone together with large rubber bands and rope.

What led this threesome to be kneeling in the shed, started when a dead female whale washed up on an Olympia beach in 2007 near Johnson Point. Now what? Whale carcasses have been dealt with in a variety of ways by wildlife agencies – ranging from towing the carcass out to sea, letting it rot or blowing it up (not a good option, the agencies learned, after the PR mess that resulted).

In this case, state officials decided to tow the carcass –once a necropsy was performed – to McNeil Island due to the unique nature of the isle and it residents.

“They can’t complain much,” Behrens observed of the inmates, as he recounted the history of the skeleton before the move.

State officials were fairly sure it would be left undisturbed to rot in place for the year it would take for the flesh to be eaten off or fall off the bones. After the bacteria and wild animals had their go, about 90 percent of the skeleton remained.

Then fish and wildlife packed up the bones, and plunked them down in the chicken coop. Meanwhile there was the matter of who would take the bones. At first, Harbor Wild Watch, based in Gig Harbor, thought they may have a home for the skeleton, but when that plan fell through, Behrens, who is on the Wild Watch board, suggested PLU.

Both HWW and the state agreed. While all the paperwork and permits shuffled back and forth, the bones continued to sit.

“This year, the state told us they wanted their chicken coop back,” Behrens laughed.

After most of the bones – including a bag of mystery bones –were loaded in the back of Benham’s truck, the skull, all 200 pounds, was loaded into a trailer, and the entire skeleton was moved to the Rieke storage room last week. It will stay in there for the next couple of weeks, and then moved to a walk in freezer at the Columbia Center to kill off any bugs that may be remaining on the bones.

“Erin (McGinnis, director of culinary services) said she had the best phone message ever when she listened to me say “I need a walk in freezer for a whale,”’ Behrens laughed.

Eventually the bones that were packed off by animals will be replaced via plaster casts and the entire skeleton will be hung from the ceiling when Rieke is renovated.

Thornburg said that when the project was first proposed, no one had any idea how to prepare a whale skeleton. So the group turned to Amazon, where sure enough, there was a book called “How to Clean a Whale.”

Basically, once you have a skeleton, the rest of the process involves patience, a lot of hydrogen peroxide and elbow grease, Thornburg and Behrens said.

“I’m sure when the students volunteered to help us, they didn’t think they would be pulling whale jerky off bones,” he said.

Students will have a chance to study the anatomy of the whale – whose species makes the famed migration each year along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Baja to breed, Behrens noted. The gray whales are approximately 15 feet at birth, live 50 years or more and can grow to a length of 45 feet and weight about 30 tons.

An opportunity to study a skeleton of this behemoth “doesn’t come around very often,” Behrens said.

As for the stray jawbone? Behrens left it in the chicken coop.

“I figure if the state doesn’t want it, they’ll let us know.”