Orca Skeleton Project - Fort Bragg CA
The Gray Whale Inn, Fort Bragg, CA
"It's haunted you know."
"That old inn where you'll be staying - The Gray Whale Inn. It used to be the town's first hospital and morgue. Some people say that it is haunted."
Perfect. So there I was, housed for a month-long whale building project in a haunted hotel in Fort Bragg, California.
The project was Orca C-452, a transient male that washed up in the Fort Bragg, California, area in April of 2015 after it got wrapped up in some commercial fishing gear and drowned. This may be the biggest orca whale skeleton on display anywhere. The bones alone weighed 585 pounds. The skull about 160 pounds.
The organization that spearheaded the collection, preparation, and articulation (say that 3 times fast) for this skeleton was the Noyo Center for Marine Science in Fort Bragg, California. I was going to be working alongside Mike de Roos and his wife Michi Main who are the top whale builders in Canada. They reconstructed the skeleton of an 82-foot long blue whale, now in the Beaty Museum of Biodiversity, in Vancouver B.C. That skeleton may be the finest blue whale skeleton anywhere.
This was to be another bone-building experiment. Could the Noyo Center in Fort Bragg attract people who would pay tuition to work along with us on articulating this whale? How much would they pay and how long would they want to work? I believed people would be very interested, but I had no idea of how many people would be or how much they would pay for tuition for this once in a lifetime opportunity. It turned out that the logistics of getting to Fort Bragg, combined with the cost of housing on top of the tuition, was more than what most bone-building enthusiasts were willing to spend. However, because of some generous donations by local benefactors, many local students, interns, and volunteers were able to sign up for a chance to work on the project. A few others came from great distances to work for a week. All were surprised and amazed that they were actually going to be doing hands-on whale skeleton building with real tools and not just watching us work, or handing us tools, or doing some other non-bone-building work.
Mike de Roos is an artist and a master of metalwork, and he wanted to build this whale skeleton in a banked-curve position. He spent most of the month in a back room welding up metal frameworks that were mostly hidden within the bones. Because there would be a lot of people standing around waiting for the metalwork to get finished before they could proceed on the Orca Project, we started work on several other skeletons (a female elephant seal, a harbor porpoise, and a river otter) which were mostly completed by the time we finished the orca skeleton. Moe from the California Acadamy of Sciences in San Francisco brought a bottlenose dolphin skeleton that also got articulated for an exhibit coming up in San Francisco. She was the captain of that project.
As a fund-raiser for the Noyo Center, I taught a scientific illustration class over the course of four evenings. Bones, as well as other specimens, were illustrated and I was very happy with what the students did.
The orca whale skeleton was finished (just in time) with only two late nights of work at the end of the month. One of the interns, Kristi from Ohio, was thrilled to spend a couple killer nights with us doing after hours finish work on the stands. The skeleton was partly disassembled and brought to the Starr Center, which is a community recreation/public activity building, to be on exhibit until the Noyo Center has a building big enough in which the orca skeleton will live permanently.
About thirty-five people worked on these skeleton articulation projects, eight to twelve at a time. Sheila, the director of Noyo even got to spend a good chunk of the month working with duplicating the orca teeth which were being 3-D printed one at a time from a type of plastic. They came out perfect. Photographers, film-makers, reporters, and staff were often in the workroom (the old city gymnasium). A sign outside the door welcomed the public to come in and watch. At times it worked like clockwork. Other times it was barely contained-chaos. My role evolved into trying to keep the interns happily busy. Making sure everyone had what they needed in the way of materials and instruction such that they could make forward motion. Sometimes it was discreetly trying different people out at different tasks until we found something they were both happy with and good at doing. I didn't necessarily know what direction Mike was going with his metalwork and plans in his mind seemed to change from time to time. Michi (his wife) was the sensitive one who excelled at foreseeing potential problems and in communicating what those might be. In the end, it all came together, on time, as a fantastic project with a world-class result.
And no, I didn't see any ghosts but there was a bizarre rattle/pounding on the door one night while I was in bed reading. I opened the door to see who ------- nobody visible.
The theme of this project surely has to do with how much can one small organization and three northern bone-builders get done in a thirty-day stretch, without working too much overtime. The answer is usually, not as much as they thought they could. But, this time, because of enthusiastic staff, lots of great volunteers and members, and several people who traveled far to participate, it was an astounding success.
Step one is to sort, inventory and number the bones.
Part of the science we did was to weigh...
...and measure each bone.
Jamie Knaub, a Pennsylvania super-intern from my marine skeleton articulation class in Alaska, came and spent ten days....
...mostly photographing each of the bones. This is her third full orca skeleton she has worked on in the last year.
Like building anything, it helps to have a scale model and blueprint to work from.
This is a to-scale, bendable model that we made.
From the bendable model, we made this, a 3D model. Made to test fit into a scale model of the entryway of the Starr Building where the skeleton was to temporarily live.
The team transferred what was to be the curve of the backbone to a line on the floor. Then bent the steel pipe that the vertebrae would be strung on to follow that curve.
Richard, the machinist, helped the young crew bore big holes through the center of the vertebrae.
Jasmine and Leah drilling and fitting bones from the tail end.
Tayana holding a vertebra with a hole so clean it could have come from the factory that way.
Jasmine-diver-surfer-illustrator-super volunteer-quit a job to work on the skeleton.
Mike, the ultimate bone-builder from Canada, spent most of his time in the welding room (a shower room) doing this.
We went to find Mike one time and this was all that was left. We thought he had a meltdown.
Megan and Brianna (from St. Louis) doing some precise measuring of the skull for science.
Michi (Mike's wife) is usually in the background helping volunteers to make forward progress. This time she gets a chance to work on her own.
Kathy--After drilling her first bone perfectly. Afterward, she went out and bought herself a drill.
Sheila, director of the Noyo Center, is being sighted for a perfect line (to drill).
A rare photo of Mike outside the welding room.
Mike's fine metal work for attaching the skull and mandibles.
Nicole made long drives to come work on the whale skeleton.
This is one way to make a rib template.
Heather, the artist, and Sheila, the director, installing the 3D-printed, lightweight orca teeth.
Kristi from Ohio and Tayana hollowing out the humerus.
Meanwhile, Lee did a scientific illustration workshop in the evenings one week, for fifteen interested students. They did some great illustrations.
... was articulated.
An elephant seal
Heather painted a backdrop for the porpoise skeleton.
Where it was reassembled.
The orca skeleton was finished on time - after a couple of late nights. It was then disassembled to be moved to the Starr Building.
Tanaya working on a river otter skeleton.
The articulated harbor porpoise.
And that's the end of the tail.
Those who were there at the very end.
Lots of stars in this picture.
Scientific Illustrations from the Class