Guest Article*; the story of Fort Bragg’s Blue Whale

Articulating the Noyo vision, bone by bone In 2009, a lethal strike from a ship’s propeller off the Mendocino coast tragically killed a 73-foot female blue whale. This ship-strike, a leading threat to these magnificent mammals, has been turned into a story of Fort Bragg’s community coming together around the vision of the Noyo Marine Science Center. […]
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Noyo Center
The Noyo Center for Marine Science

Articulating the Noyo vision, bone by bone

In 2009, a lethal strike from a ship’s propeller off the Mendocino coast tragically killed a 73-foot female blue whale. This ship-strike, a leading threat to these magnificent mammals, has been turned into a story of Fort Bragg’s community coming together around the vision of the Noyo Marine Science Center.

At Noyo, we believe that the desire to learn about and protect our marine environment will only come with a powerful emotional connection to the amazing underwater world.

Our dream is to turn our blue whale bones into a world-class exhibit that will represent the Noyo vision to:

  • Create a space in which scientists, artists and the public (of all ages) can work together, learn from each other and create multi-disciplinary opportunities
  • Captivate and draw young minds toward a deeper level of inquiry and connection with the marine world
  • Inspire our local population and attract visitors to the Mendocino coast

 

Blue whale skeleton
Artist’s rendering of the articulated skeleton

 

The story of “our” whale:

 

When the devastating news that a 73-ft long female blue whale had suffered a lethal injury from a ship’s propeller off our coast in 2009 became public, the community of Fort Bragg came together.  Seeing this beautiful whale washed up on shore was so moving that members of our community voiced an idea to salvage the skeleton for Fort Bragg, regardless of the fact that there would be no agency or university leading the effort.  Working with NOAA, the City was able to obtain rights to acquire the skeleton for eventual public display.  More than 200 people walked away from their normal lives to participate in an unprecedented community effort to haul 70-tons of bones and blubber up a 40-foot cliff and bury the whale in compost out in the forest.  It was a monumental task.

Students from all over got a once-in-a-lifetime blue whale-sized anatomy lesson during the flensing process as we worked with national experts to provide as many samples for research as possible.

After four years of sitting in compost and sand in large pits in the forest, our amazing volunteers once again came together with the City of Fort Bragg to carefully dig out each bone.  Thankfully, microbes and insects had done a good job, and most of the flesh was gone.  Some bones, like the caudal vertebrae near the tail, were still encased in very strong connective tissue and had to be put back in compost to finish the job.  The bones were trucked to the wastewater treatment plant in Fort Bragg where we have been cleaning and scrubbing them (what a great place for this dirty job!)

The skeleton is now in storage awaiting funding to begin the next stage of the restoration process: degreasing to remove the (extremely smelly!) internal oils.

Cleaning – We have already come a long way in preparing our blue whale skeleton for display.  Members of our community who helped to collect the skeleton flensed away about 70 tons of flesh to extract the bones.  We have since relied on composting, insects and soil microorganisms to remove the remaining soft tissues and we’re ready to move on to the next stage.

Degreasing – Whale bones are composed of both compact and cancellous hard tissues.  Compact bone is found in the outer regions of bones and in the load-bearing regions of the skeleton.  It is solid and dense.  Cancellous bone, on the other hand, is sponge-like.  It is less rigid and is filled with oil that serves as a nutrient reserve and aids in buoyancy in living whales.  Did you know that this oil can comprise up to 40-50% of the weight of a blue whale skeleton??!

Left alone, the oil quickly becomes rancid and unbelievably stinky in saturated whale bones.  Understandably, for a public display, 100% of this stinky oil must be removed.  Extracting the oil without damaging the hard bony tissues is by far the biggest challenge in the job of preparing a whale skeleton for display and this step will take several months to complete carefully.  We are currently working with a team of experienced scientists to plan our degreasing strategy and we are working hard to raise funds to get this step underway.

Restoration – Since our whale encountered a ship’s propeller, several vertebrae and parts of the skull have been damaged.  We want the public to know the story of our whale’s death so we plan to do minimal repair to these areas.  However, more trauma to the skeleton occurred when the carcass was washed up on the beach since whale skeletons are not built for bearing their own weight on land. We plan to restore these broken bones to their original condition.

There are many great artistic products that are available to articulators and museum conservators to do this kind of restoration.  This stage is very fun and will involve learning blue whale anatomy in great detail and calling on a talented team of artists to repair, sculpt and paint the broken areas to restore the skeleton.  Next, we’ll be ready to put our bones back together.

Articulation  – The world of a whale remains mysterious to most of us since the vast amount of its time is spent below the surface of the ocean.  Most historic articulations of large whales portray, well, the dead whale that was found on land.  The recent advancement of underwater remote sensing technology has shed much light on the amazingly dynamic lives that whales actually lead under water and off-shore.  This has allowed the science of whale skeleton articulation to progress beyond an anatomical exercise into an exciting discipline that fuses science and art.

Using top-quality artistic materials and cutting edge articulation techniques, we plan to design a dynamic, scientifically accurate and elegant display that will breathe life.  The exhibit will allow people of all ages to intimately experience the life and ecology of a whale up close.  Visitors will connect with the vastness of the marine environment of the Mendocino coast and beyond, and continue toward a deeper learning experience at the Noyo Center.

We are thrilled to have Cetacea Contracting, renowned in modern skeleton articulation techniques, on our team to help lead us through the skeleton building process. Check out their website to see some more examples of dynamic skeleton articulations and see the image below for an idea of the possibilities available for our blue whale skeleton exhibit.

If you would like to learn more about this exciting project or see how you can get involved, please contact us or donate today!

* Content courtesy of the Noyo Center for Marine Science

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