Sperm Whale Skeleton Project - El Refugio de Potosi, Mexico
In October of 2010, I took a bus man's holiday-type vacation to a wonderful little nature reserve, just south of Zihuatanejo, Mexico, called El Refugio de Potosi. The staff of this reserve had collected the skeleton out of a rotting, large male sperm whale that was being battered against the local coastline in May of 2009. The skull was broken, some ribs were missing and the small bones in the flippers were mostly gone, but otherwise, it was a fairly complete skeleton, most of 55-feet long. I got involved with the story when I received an email from the director, Laurel Patrick, asking what they could do to save the bones.
She said the bones were oil and flesh free and were rapidly degrading and getting soft. This is the opposite problem most whale skeletons have. Many whale skeletons in museums are still dripping oil, even after 100 years or more! Last summer I looked at some humpback whale bones in Alaska that, even after nine years of being macerated, weathered, boiled and composted, still had bones that were oil saturated. So, I was a little incredulous to hear that the El Refugio de Potosi's sperm whale bones were in this condition after less than eighteen months of being removed from the whale. .... (Continued at the bottom of the page.)
Click on the first photo to watch a slideshow
It turned out that is exactly the condition the bones were in. Evidently, the heat, humidity, rain, and sun had totally leached all the oils from the bone and they were dry and starting to deteriorate. We experimented with various local materials to find one that might consolidate the bones and keep them from degrading any further. An acrylic-based cement sealer seemed like it was doing the job pretty well.
Fast forward to January 2016. I heard Laurel was going to make a push for some forward motion on the whale skeleton with David Evans, an inventor from Canada. I offered to help and suggested she put a call out for some other volunteers. She found close to twenty people that came to help out. This was a very mixed group, ranging from locals that spoke no English, to a pair of college students from Mexico City, to local American snowbirds, to friends and acquaintances, to myself and David who came for a winter break to work on the skeleton. On the first day, David showed up with a suitcase full of tools and, along with Laurel's worker-staff, we figured out a scaffolding system that worked for putting the rib cage together. With Laurel coordinating schedules and chasing materials, me choreographing the teams, and David working with me on the rib cage fabrication, it progressed like clockwork and we got the skeleton finished with one day to spare. Lots of happy players involved. This was the largest whale skeleton I've worked on. They didn't have an accurate measurement of the full whale, as it washed in and out of rough surf at the time, but the finished skeleton came in at 1574 cm with a 5 meter-long skull and a 4.5 meter-long mandible, from what I suspect was about a 55-foot whale in life.