Orca and Gray Whale Skeletons- ​Charleston, OR

In the winter of 2013, I received a phone call from Craig Young, a university professor, who was also the director of The Oregon Institute Of Marine Biology in Charleston, Oregon. He wanted to know if I would consider coming to Oregon to talk to an instructor and a class about how to articulate a gray and orca whale skeleton. They actually had two whale skeletons that they would like to have articulated in time for the grand opening of a new aquarium being built there as part of the institute. They had a retired teacher, Nancy Treneman, who was interested in leading the project and possibly some other volunteers. They wanted to do this as a summer class with students. One whale was a 650 centimeter (21 feet) long orca skeleton that had been found dead at Port Orford, Oregon in 2006. It was an unidentified Gulf of Alaska transient whale. The other whale was a 28-foot-long gray whale skeleton that had beached in April of 1987 and had been cleaned and the bones used for classroom use ever since. Neither whale was totally ready for articulation. Both still needed some cleaning. The gray whale had numerous skeletal injuries on it that had partially healed. Nancy was very interested in doing this and had some of my bone building manuals but had never done a whale skeleton before. Other teachers on campus had worked with small marine mammal skeletons. But this may have been more than they wanted to tackle.

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I was off to San Francisco that spring for a whale project and wouldn't be able to meet the spring class. When I got back, I contacted them and found out the class and the project wasn't going to happen that summer. We started talking about doing these in the fall. In communicating with Craig and Nancy I started to get the picture that this was not a totally thought out operation. There were questions about funding. About where to assemble the whales, even what whale they wanted to have assembled first. It morphed from me advising on the Orca to working on the Orca, to coming at two different times to do two different whales, to getting the Orca done first and getting a start on the Gray. In the end, they could hire me for 4 weeks and no more than 3 of those weeks could be on the Orca. However, it sounded like it was to happen in a beautiful little spot on the Oregon Coast and was going to have some enthusiastic players. I sent them a materials list for the Orca whale and got a ticket to Eugene.

Just before that, I had received an E-mail from an Orca Project Volunteer from Port Townsend, Washington, where I had done an Orca Articulation Project with several dozen volunteers a few years previous. This person wanted to volunteer if I ever had another whale project she could work on. I forwarded a message to be passed around some of the key players in Port Townsend that I was likely to be doing a couple whale projects on the Oregon Coast if anyone wanted to come help. Several possibly did, but circumstances or short notice left nobody that was likely to actually come at that time. One Americore student, Julia, from that project, who was between jobs and living at home at the moment, wrote to see if she could come help. At about that same time I got an E-mail from Ester, a gal from Barcelona Spain whom I had previously helped through a big bone project she was doing in Iceland. She wanted to know if I had any projects in Alaska she could come help on. I told her none in Alaska at the moment but if she happened to be near the Oregon Coast I might be working on a couple whales there she could help with. Three days later she had a ticket to Oregon from Spain to come help. This was 10 days before I was due to leave for Oregon. Fortunately, Craig was able to move me into a cute cottage instead of a dorm room when I told him it looked like I'd have some helpers showing up.

Nancy picked me up in Eugene and brought me back to Charleston. I met the whale bones, saw the workshop space and was given a grand tour, including a drive to some coastal overlooks to see the biggest waves I have seen in my life. Remnants from a big storm that had just passed through. The project took right off. Nancy jumped in on making the dirty and stained bones way cleaner than they were. She knew her way around campus and the area and was a major problem solver anytime I came up with something that we needed.

We tried to have a local machine shop bend the pipe (which would hold the backbone in place) but it wasn't going to work. In the end, Craig came through with a new hydraulic pipe bender and we could continue.

Julia from Portland and Ester from Spain showed up. Students from the campus started wandering in, some with a desire to help. Nancy was my problem solving, go-getting, super worker, who did magic at getting almost anything I needed as well as improving the looks of the bones by a great magnitude. She and I and students who wandered in got started on the Orca skeleton. Ester and Julia, when they arrived, were plugged into articulating two 6-foot-long gray whale flippers.

Life took on a wonderful rhythm. I would start early, partly to have quiet time and partly so my bone building roomies could have the bathroom and the house to themselves without some old guy being around. At some point, Nancy would show up followed by my roomies and the day would be in full swing. Usually, in the early afternoon, I would either offer to go down the street to a local dinner bar with whoever wanted to go, or the roomies would head home to start dinner there. Some days I followed right behind and other days I kept working.

Rarely did I have helpers on the night shift so I mostly didn't spend a lot of hours on the bones after dinner. When I did it was a quiet time to do machining and fixing and finishing and planning and cleanup and unless the gals had a movie they were sharing, I usually didn't have anything else to occupy my evenings. Since the workshop was only 100 feet from the front door of our cottage, I was often drawn back to the bones like a moth to a light.

We worked 6 day weeks and on Sundays, Miss Julia took us out exploring - hiking - adventuring - beach walking. She had spent time working in this area and knew it well. To Ester and me, it was new and exotic. Temperatures were comfortable (the 50s) and we had virtually no rain the month I was there.

The Campus had about 30 marine biology students on it. Eight of them ended up helping out and did an excellent job on the skeleton. One of those was a farm gal who was very competent with tools. Another was an artistic type and another was helpful at anything that needed to happen. Other students learned that if they came in, I might put a tool in their hand and they were a little more careful about when they showed up.

On Saturday I had 10 gals all working on various whalebone projects and having a good time. One of the male students walked in and saw the scene. He said, "Man, you have to have one of the best jobs in the world!" I agreed. He still didn't stay to help.

We scooted along and got the orca done by the end of the third week. It wouldn't have fit through the front door with the ribs on, so before the ribs were attached it was carried into the aquarium building.

By now the gray whale flippers were finished. The tail was done. The skull was consolidated. The ribs pins were installed. The vertebrae were half on. We had a final week to try to get it all done. We damn near made it too. We ran out of metal workers at the end who had time to work on the gray whale skull cradle. James came in on his day off and did magic with welding the rib cage metal as soon as we moved it across the street.

Nancy Treneman with her exuberance attracted students and adults and was invaluable in making things go in forward motion at times I was getting frustrated by a lack of materials or some part or other. She saw to it that I got to and from Charlton and helped arrange for Ester to be picked up. She did her best to keep me fueled when I ignored things like a daily need for calories. She continued on with the whale after I left and with James, the maintenance staff, some other volunteers, and saw to it that the last things got finished.

Miss Julia Ledbetter was a one gal entertainment package that came with many extras. Extras such as endless digital music and video selection. A cooking repertoire that seemed almost as varied. A tour guide's knowledge of the area, a beautiful vehicle, and enthusiasm to take us places in it, and a never-ending smile to go. On top of all that, she did first-rate whale building work. What more could I ask?

Ester Sanchez came all the way from Spain to learn about big bone building. She was dedicated, studious, and adamant that each bone be in exactly the right place. She was determined to learn and practice every step of the project and quick to correct anyone who got in her way. She and Julia hit it off like two long lost sisters and together were responsible for the completion of major sections of the gray whale.

Both whale skeletons were virtually done by the time I left. This was like finishing two in the time it usually takes to get one done. The Orca didn't have its teeth cast and installed yet. The Gray still needed the metal cradle to hold the skull and jaws up. Both whales were left suspended side by side from scaffolding in a room in the future aquarium building.

In a 28 day span, I put 280 hours into working on the whales. 22 different volunteers that worked with me cumulatively put in an estimated 700 more hours. And this doesn't count the necropsy butchering, cleaning of the bones or the finish work that was done after I left.

Over the years it has come to my attention that guys have been woefully under-represented when it comes to volunteering on or organizing these whale projects. Guys come and go but for whatever reason, it is the gals that stick when it comes to interest in working on these. The women who walk into these projects rarely have a clue what they are walking into. They are usually totally unfamiliar with the tools and material. Whale anatomy may be unfamiliar to them, but they come and they come back over and over and over. The work they do is almost always slow and careful and top notch. I'm not sure what this says about anything. It is but an observation. Of the 22 helpers I had on this project, exactly 3 were guys. (But what they did was crucial, thanks James, Mike, and Craig.)

We'll stand by for photos when the whales get displayed in the finished building.