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​Orca Whale Skeleton Articulation Project - Port Townsend, WA

The Articulation of yet Another Orca Whale Skeleton

This is the skeleton of CA-189, a transient orca whale that died and was found near Dungeness Spit, Washington, in January of 2002. Another whale, believed to be her son, stayed around for several more days before leaving. Hope was buried in a shallow grave after being flensed of blubber and some flesh. Her head and one flipper were removed for further study. Six years later, the mostly clean skeleton was excavated and turned over to the Port Townsend Marine Science Center (PTMSC). I was brought into the project by a dear friend who worked for the PTMSC, originally in 2008, to meet the staff. This was followed up by two more visits previous to the month-long articulation blitz. Over the next couple of years, the project went from a simple - when - where - and how much would it cost to assemble the skeleton to - why don't we do this as a community volunteer project using local, enthusiasm and skills and doing some good science and collecting some valuable data out of the skeleton before it is assembled.

The first pair of holes being drilled into flipper bones. Do these ladies look nervous?

Jess Swihart, one of a trio of Americorp workers doing repair and consolidation to a damaged spot on a vertebra.

A crew making sure each vertebra is correctly lined up.

Staff and a favorite docent working on silicone cartilage between the vertebrae.

These two are smoothing replacement cartilage (silicone).

Me being supervised in the correct placement of the first pair of ribs.Photo by Ned Schumann.

Becca, our super-welder, holding a the skull cradle.

Julia Ledbetter, an Americorp worker, installing one of the last caudal ribs.

"The Curves" (nicknamed after the work for the curve of the backbone rod) working on the chevron bones. These two (Chloe and Eliza) were superb silicone finishers.

Libby Palmer (Project Director) Chrissy and Kim (from Seattle) installing the last sternal ribs. (Onlooker Kim Post, my sister.)

Middle section of the whale skeleton.

Hope's first night alone as a full skeleton.

Caring mother to the individual bones, smiled more and more as the bones came together Chrissy McLean, Marine Program Coordinator, angst over how her children (the bones) were turning out. They came out beautifully.

Most of the proud volunteers that worked on the month-long skeleton articulation project of Hope.

An awe-struck visitor at the opening of the exhibit.

Between a week of workshops and a lot of e-mail correspondence, the bones got weighed, measured and photographed from multiple angles, for a bone atlas. The teeth got molded and cast. A full-length 2-D model of the whale skeleton got built which served to drastically shrink the existing exhibit space. At this point, the project went into a holding pattern while a new plan was finalized. The new plan consisted of a fund-raising campaign to come up with an addition to the building big enough to display the finished skeleton. This is an ongoing campaign.

Libby Palmer, one of the original directors of the PTMSC signed on to manage the Orca Skeleton Project. She may be the number two volunteer magnet - right behind Hope - in terms of attracting top-rate volunteers. Chrissy McLean, Marine Program Coordinator, was the active keeper of the bones. She finished cleaning the bones, boiling the flipper, macerating the skull, and generally was the worried, caring mother of each of those 160 children (the bones of the whale). With her loving care, all the bones survived and generally turned into clean, dry, undamaged, oil-free bones, as beautiful as any museum curator could hope for. Heather Jones, a young Science Degree Graduate, and lover of movement was in the right place at the right time and was hired as the Orca Project Coordinator. She organized an army of enthusiastic, when-can-we-start volunteers and turned them into an organized dance of precisely choreographed teams that did most of the work articulating the skeleton.

I showed up in January 2011, to direct the month-long skeleton articulation project. As I got comfortable with how smoothly these teams were working, the challenge became to use as many more people as we could and fit them somewhere into the project without causing overcrowding. We did what we could to accommodate everyone. Those that didn't get to help were because I couldn't find a position for them. I did very little actual bone building on this skeleton. Mostly I acted as the conductor, fine-tuning an orchestra of enthusiastic bone builders, trying to stay one step ahead of them in terms of materials and problem-solving. Generally, there were a dozen or more volunteers working the day shift with myself and sometimes another doing planning and problem solving into the evenings.

Some forty people were able to do hands-on work on this skeleton project. We had two professional artists donate two weeks of their time to restore and fix the damaged skull. Two dentists came in and placed the teeth such that the jaw can close with the teeth interlocking. Other teams worked on flippers, tail, making a life-sized template for the curve of the metal rod in the backbone, silicone, ribs, chevron bones - and we had a super welder who did magic with metal every time we needed something fabricated. It was an eye-opener getting started. These were not museum professionals. Many of them had never handled a power drill or mixed epoxy glue before this. It was an interesting blank look I got the first time I asked someone to get the hacksaw. Before long they were all cutting metal, drilling holes, mixing epoxy and smoothing silicone. They were slow, cautious, nervous, and methodical but what they did was absolutely top quality, museum standard work and we got it done on time and within budget. The interesting surprise was how many of these people didn't want to leave. They finished their projects and hung around until I found other things on the whale for them to do. Because of all this extra energy being channeled into finishing-work, this came out to be one fantastically, beautiful skeleton. One that both Hope and Chrissy would smile about. Here's to Hope into the future.

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