Porpoise Skeleton Project - California Academy of Sciences

​Portable Porpoise Puzzle Project

In April of 2015, I was invited back to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco for another bone project. This one was to be a little different than anything I had tried before. The challenge (if I accepted the assignment), was to articulate a porpoise skeleton such that it could quickly and easily be taken apart into a dozen or more sections that could just as easily be reassembled into a full skeleton on a regular basis. Because it was to be done on a real specimen, with real bones, the challenge was to try to make it be strong enough that it wouldn't self destruct under repeated handling. Also it was to be built in full view of the visiting public without the aid of a workshop, using volunteer interns to do the hands-on bone construction of the Porpoise puzzle.

Click on the first photo to see slideshow

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I had two tables to work on, a rotating group of five bone builders and four engagers (who explained what we were doing to the curious public), and seventy hours of time over three weeks to get it finished. I would generally have two bone builders and an engager helping at any one time. Fortunately these volunteers were veterans of the offshore Orca project from two years earlier and already knew about the tools and materials we were using and were familiar with the routine of working with me at that location. Set up - Be careful - Do fantastic work - Keep smiling - and put it all away at the end of the shift.

This project was being done in conjunction with the New Zealand traveling exhibit, Whales: Giants of the Deep, that was on exhibit upstairs starting the first day of this project. That exhibit had a 58-foot male sperm whale skeleton, a 30-some-foot female sperm whale skeleton, a couple smaller whale skeletons, a couple fossil whale skeletons, a dozen beaked whale skulls and lots of other exhibit material on whales and whaling from New Zealand. It is a world class exhibit by any standards and is especially impressive when you take into account that it was done in New Zealand and is traveling around this country. Most of us are doing good to get a large whale skeleton together, let alone trying to engineer one that comes apart for travel all the time.

People coming to the Academy would often find our project first and you could see the relief on their faces when they were told that, "No, this isn't the advertised Giants of the Deep whale exhibit. That exhibit is upstairs. It has lots of big whale stuff. This is the other end of the spectrum."

But an interesting sidebar was that Harbor Porpoise had been absent from San Francisco Bay for most of seventy years since the big building projects of the bridges had started with the dredging and blasting followed by the submarine nets and activity of World War II, and the industrial noise and pollution after that. Only in recent years have the Harbor Porpoise started coming back into the bay. Now they are coming back in substantial numbers giving researchers unprecedented views of porpoise behavior, even from the Golden Gate Bridge. Evidently San Francisco Bay is the ultimate pick up spot for Harbor Porpoise to hitch up - the singles scene for porpoise partnering purposes. . . Thus the assembly of this porpoise which had been found dead on an outer beach twenty-five years ago and had lived as a clean set of bones in a box in the Academy collections ever since.

The Porpoise was finished with a couple hours to spare. It was left with the Academy education people as a 15-piece portable porpoise puzzle that comes apart in one minute and goes back together in two minutes. Many of the pieces snap together with a satisfying click as embedded magnets lock together. Another wonderful whale swimming again.

Time Lapse Video of the Porpoise Puzzle

AND THEN...

One morning towards the end of the project, I received a phone call from Moe Flannery, Birds and Mammals Collection Manager, to see if I could get away for a day. A 49-foot long sperm whale washed up on a beach just south of San Francisco and they wanted to do a necropsy on it to see if they could understand why it died. It took 18 people to carry just the mandible on a stretcher made of tarps with handles all around. The whale can be aged from one of the teeth in that mandible.

49-foot sperm whale on Pacifica Beach.