Orca Whale Skeleton Project - ​Gustavus, Alaska

I have yet to have a single whale skeleton project that felt like it was a repeat of a previous project. That wouldn't seem like such an unusual statement if I had only done a handful of whale skeletons but this was my 20th whale skeleton. What made this one so unusual besides it being a very small orca skeleton at 357.5 centimeters ( 11 feet 9 inches), was the location and situation it was done - Gustavus, Alaska.

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To back up a bit, I was first hired to go to Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast Alaska in July of 2010, to evaluate the bones of whale #68. These were the remaining bones from a 45.5-foot-long humpback whale that had been struck and killed by a cruise ship in Glacier Bay National Park waters in July of 2001.The bones had been salvaged and kept for evidence. Over the next ten years, virtually every known method of cleaning whale bones was used to try to get these bones clean and oil free with varying levels of success. They were soaked and macerated and simmered and boiled and composted and steam cleaned and pressure washed and scrubbed. Many of the bones were beautiful and white but others had resisted all efforts at getting them clean and oil free. The Park Service wanted to proceed with the cleaning and articulation of this whale (probably the largest humpback whale skeleton for public display in the USA) Some of the bones were damaged. Some had gone missing. Some were very oily. This was information that could be passed out to people interested in working on this project. Dan Dendanto of Maine got the job and in the fall of 2012 he collected all the bones in a U-Haul and took them back to Maine for preparation of an outdoor exhibit of this big whale skeleton. But that will be his story. While I was doing the examination of the Humpback whale bones, I saw this little killer whale skeleton the Park Service had collected in 2005. I told them if they ever wanted that articulated, I'd love to come work on it. Several years later, in the spring of 2013, my phone rang with an inquiry about whether I was still interested or not. By this time, I'd done four other orca whale skeleton projects. This one was going to be quite different. . .

It was early February, and I'd be working in an Alaskan town so small it didn't have a hardware store or even a restaurant where one could go for lunch; a tiny town with no road access to or from any other town. . .

​My workshop was a small building behind the local school - grades K-12. The workshop was warm and light and had workbenches and tools, which was all I really needed. My housing was a guest room in a bigger summer guest house, less than two miles away. I had a balloon-tired three-speed bike to get back and forth. This worked well once I learned it would freeze up (due to the cold) in whatever gear I put it in when I first took off each morning. It was mostly 0 to 10 degrees F in the mornings. However there was very little snow on the ground.

On most whale projects I do, no matter how much I bring, it seems I need to make a daily run to the local hardware store for one thing or another. This time I didn't have that option so I needed to bring virtually everything I could think of that I might need. This meant mailing boxes of materials ahead of time and taking 100 pounds of other tools, supplies, materials, clothes - and stuff - with me. A few things were still forgotten, but nothing too crucial.

I had a twelve-day work window to get the whale skeleton together. This would have been very tight but I also had a Kelly and a Melissa. These were two very enthusiastic park employees who wanted to help even more than they did, but had limitations on how many hours they were permitted to work with me. Their help was invaluable.

The workshop was open to the public and the public came. Every school kid in town came at least once. Some came several times. Some got to help. One kinder-garden student drilled and placed the first vertebrae. Timing is everything. Other students came in after school and got put to work. The high school science students colored the cast teeth to look more realistic before we set them in place. Various adults came by and helped out; a couple became regular volunteers.

I put in long hours at the beginning of the project to make sure I got ahead of any time-line I might have been following. Once I got there, it was easier to relax and encourage the locals who might have wanted to help, to come in more. I love working on these projects with volunteers that never dreamed they could be assisting building a whale skeleton. The reality however is that this doesn't usually speed the project up, at least not until they have helped long enough that they can proceed on their own. A small whale skeleton such as this one doesn't have a lot of areas that someone can work on long enough to develop the skills to keep going, as the next step is often using totally different tools, materials and skills. This makes for very interesting work for volunteers but it means teaching the entire time with little opportunities for a volunteer to go one direction while I go another.

People brought me so much food and snacks I never finished what little food I had stocked up for myself. My theory is that in a town without a restaurant option, people become very good cooks. The meals people brought were exquisite, which besides being delicious, it was a huge help not having to quit and go chase calories.

The whale was pretty much together by the end of the tenth day. Day eleven was spent doing touch up, cleaning, final tweaking and at 4:00 PM the library closed and a pack of volunteers set up scaffolding and carried the whale sections over. Between eating pieces of some delicious homemade pizza, we assembled and suspended the little orca in a perfect space for it. Once again this orca looks like a happy swimmer in it's new home.

​Thanks to Chris for collecting the whale, park staff for cleaning and caring for it, other park staff for welding, tool loans and generally being very helpful all the way around. AND the whole town of Gustavus for being so accommodating and welcoming of both me and the new whale.