In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 1:41 PM on Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Gray Whale Project: Putting the bones together



Photo provided

Lee Post, right, shows Pratt Museum interns parts of the gray whale skeleton,including a flipper, foreground.

The prospect of assembling 160 bones of a 37-foot gray whale into an articulated skeleton might seem daunting, but here's the good news.

It's not stinky.

This summer at the Pratt Museum, under the direction of bone expert Lee Post, volunteers will prepare and put together the skeleton of a young male gray whale found floating dead in Halibut Cove Lagoon 13 years ago.

After it was towed to shore, museum staff and helpers butchered and cut out the skull, back, flippers and other bones. The bones were sunk in a crab pot near the lagoon to let marine critters nibble away at rotting flesh. Seven months later, the bones were hauled out, dirty and smelly, but less gross.

Experimenting with a then-new technique, Post buried the flippers in a bed of horse manure. Two years later, he dug up the bones.

"Once we uncovered it, it was pretty clean," Post said. "The butchering was probably the dirtiest, gnarliest part."

As former Pratt curator of collections Betsy Webb told volunteers in 1999, "This could be looked at as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a really gross experience or both."

Putting the skeleton together might be a different once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it won't be gross. The bones have been scraped, cleaned and left outside to bleach in the sun.

"The bones are clean, nothing gooey or smelly," Post said. "It's all dry bone."

Starting July 1, volunteers working in the Pratt's shop will start on the skeleton. Like building a house, the project involves everything from building a foundation — a metal frame to support the skull, vertebrae and flippers — to finish work, like patching holes and making minor repairs. Museum visitors can watch the project workers and, if willing, help out. Ideally, Post will recruit teams of volunteers committed to sticking with one phase of the project — say, putting together a flipper.

"In the Homer world, that may not be what happens," Post said.

On the Pratt Museum website and the project's blog, tasks to be done have been plotted out on a job chart, such as "repair/consolidate body bones, six people, one week." People with skills like metalworking would be appreciated for fabricating parts of the frame, such as a 21-foot piece of steel tubing to support the backbone. No experience is necessary, though. A volunteer application form also is on the websites.

"I'm not looking for experienced people. I'm looking for enthusiastic people," Post said. "I will train people to do anything we need to do."

Starting with a Bering Sea beaked whale Post helped the Pratt put together, the self-taught bone expert has supervised or helped to articulate 15 whales, including a gray whale done for the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak that washed up around the same time as Homer's gray whale. Post helped Homer High School students assemble the sperm whale skeleton that hangs in the high school commons.

Some tasks require an artist's touch, like molding the caulking that simulates the cartilage between the vertebrae. On previous bone projects, Post has found someone comes forward who has the patience and talent to do a certain job.

"There's always somebody who's better at it than anybody else," he said.

All the tasks come together at the end of the summer when the pieces get assembled. The skeleton will be in five main sections — tail, head, ribs, flippers and vertebra — that will be displayed in whole or part for the Pratt Museum's "Encounters" exhibit, opening February 2013. Pratt Curator of Collections Holly Cusack-McVeigh said the exhibit answers a question frequently heard from visitors: "What kind of whales do you have in these waters?"

"This is an opportunity for us to create an exhibit that talks about the whales in our waters and some of the issues," she said.

Cusack-McVeigh said she's talking to some people about a temporary display site for after the "Encounters" exhibit ends in May 2013.

"It's my hope we can find another temporary exhibition space for it until it's ready to come home permanently," she said.

The gray whale was part of a two-year die-off. In 1999, 283 gray whales washed up dead along the Pacific Ocean coast from Baja California to Alaska. In 2000, another 368 were found dead. That compares with 21 gray whales found dead in 2001. Scientists didn't do a necropsy on the Halibut Cove Lagoon whale, but it didn't look like it had starved, Post said. No one knows why the whales died. Three necropsies done showed they died from different causes.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at