Dwarf Sperm Whale Skeleton - Galapagos Islands Project 2019
Lee Post's Adventure of a Lifetime - Articulating the Skeleton of a Dwarf Sperm Whale Skeleton
for the Darwin Research Center on the Galapagos Islands
If you were given an offer you couldn't refuse, what would it look like?
Mine looked like this: "How would you like to go, with Moe Flannery, collections manager of the California Academy of Sciences, to the Galapagos Islands, to articulate a whale skeleton?" .......OF COURSE I WANT TO GO!!! What kind of whale? When? "It's a Dwarf Sperm Whale (Kogia simus), the worlds smallest true whale. It would be after the first of the year (2019). No pay, but we might be able to cover travel and lodging expenses." YES!!!!
It started out as a birthday-bucket-list-invitation to Moe, from a connection she had made in the museum world, that had morphed into a group of fifteen or more people from the California Academy of Sciences, who all had projects they wanted to do in the Galapagos at the same time.
Moe and her assistant Martha Velez, who was from that area, and myself, went to articulate a 1.84 meter (about 6 feet) long Dwarf Sperm whale that had been collected after it was found dead on a beach in the Galapagos. This was the first recorded specimen of that species found there. It had been cleaned by Godfrey Merlen, a naturalist who had lived in the Galapagos for some forty-eight years. He buried it in the sand, and later dug it up and finished cleaning it at his home. The bones were in perfect condition. Only a few phalange pieces and some terminal caudal vertebrae were missing.
It is a long ride from Alaska to the Galapagos. From Homer to Anchorage to Seattle to San Francisco to Texas to Quito, and finally from Quito Ecuador to Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos. I knew the Santa Cruz Islands were off South America, and were part of Ecuador, I just didn't realize HOW far off. They are some 500 miles from the coast.
We were lodged in park housing at the Charles Darwin Research Center. The project was done at the Visitors Exhibition Center within the park, and was done as an exhibit- in-progress right in front of the public. Martha was invaluable as not only did she help articulate, but being a native Spanish-speaking person, she could answer questions and translate what we were doing for the local visitors. We spent twelve days on the articulation project. This was at the invitation of people from the Charles Darwin Research Center, most of them being local Ecuadorian, and as far as I could tell, every one of them being amazingly helpful and friendly to us and with our project.
A day in the life of this bone builder looked like this. I got up at the first tinge of light (and first bird calls) of the morning and went out exploring for an hour or so. Discovered the common birds and the marine iguanas and the Sally Lightfoot Crabs, and even a few bones on the beach. Then had an outside communal breakfast and a short walk to the Visitors Exhibition Center, which opened at 8:00 a.m. We worked until noon at which point we were booted out for two hours. We walked to town for lunch (less than a mile) and ate-shopped-explored, before returning to the air-conditioned Visitors Center where we worked until 5:00 p.m. An hour later it was dusk and I usually rounded-up or joined a group that might be ready to go back to town and find a dinner spot. The town was a fully functioning town of 18,000 people (or so). The main tourist, commercial area was a mile along the waterfront and ended at the harbor, where there were LOTS of culinary options. A favorite was a street that closed down to traffic so twenty (or more) sidewalk food kiosks could spread out on the street and serve dinners to the visitors that night. A lot of delicious seafood and tropical drinks were consumed on that street section before we left. After dinner I would walk to the harbor for the natural history show each night, where underwater lights showed off the marine and boardwalk life: pelicans, sea turtles, sea lions (sleeping on the sitting benches), sharks, various types of rays, schools of fish, herons, gulls, crabs, and marine iguanas. I never knew exactly what I would see each night.
After the skeleton was finished, we had a week to be tourists. We had been invited to stay at Godfrey's house, which was a water-taxi-ride away, and down a series of boardwalks, and through the woods, to a beautiful handmade house with a stream running through it. But, I discovered that between the mosquitoes and the humidity and the high heat index, I failed miserably at being able to sleep in those accommodations. We ended up sharing an air-conditioned hotel room for our last week. We did a lot more exploring in the area, seeing giant tortoises in the wild as well as taking a couple boat trips to visit some of the other islands. One of them had a boardwalk to the top of the volcano, built by the crew that filmed Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, starring Russel Crowe. A very interesting place to visit. The only place outside Antarctica, probably, where the wildlife has so little fear of humans. Galapagos finches landed on our drinking cups. Iguanas walked down the sidewalks. Sea lions hogged the best seating spots. I was tickled by a sea lion's whiskers while on a beach listening to the guide telling us what not to do around the wildlife. Warblers were being photographed full frame with Smart Phones. Tortoises along the path that we had to go around to avoid them. A Penguin swam right up to and touched us. A mockingbird kept dive bombing Moe. And lots of mosquitoes wanted direct human contact at certain times of each day.