UA Museum hopes to display giant whale skeleton after bacteria clean up the bones for a couple of years

FAIRBANKS—What's left of the humpback whale that washed up in Cook Inlet at Kincaid Park in July has been moved to Fairbanks, where one day the skeleton of the giant creature may become an exhibit outside the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

Scientists affiliated with the museum and a handful of other agencies, assisted by volunteers, recently salvaged and transported about 3,000 pounds of whale bones to Fairbanks, where they are to be buried in a sand pile for a couple of years.

The temporary burial plot on the West Ridge at the University of Alaska Fairbanks will allow nature to take its course, with bacteria devouring the soft tissue and oil from the bones.

On Thursday afternoon, before the burial, I watched as Aren Gunderson, manager of the museum's mammal collection, and two other museum workers unloaded bones and other parts of the whale, including dense sections of the flippers as heavy as good-sized halibut.

The bones, flippers and tail section produced a powerful stench. It was much worse, Gunderson said, on the beach at Kincaid, where the crews worked their way last week through piles of decomposing blubber, picking out bones from the muck.

As the cartilage and other soft tissue was cut away, the bones were numbered and tagged, to make reassembly easier in the future. Most of the vertebrae and ribs were carried from the beach to the top of the bluff at the park. The skull, which weighs about 1,000 pounds, was airlifted by helicopter off the beach to the hillside and shipped north on a trailer.

Gunderson, along with Kyndall Powers, the genomic resources collection manager, and Larry Pallozzi, a museum technician, spread out the bones on the burial site, with an eye toward future reconstruction.

"It will be a puzzle, but it won't be as hard as you imagine. We already know the solution to the puzzle, we've got things numbered left and right," Gunderson said.

There are almost 170 bones in a humpback whale and 157 of them have been recovered so far. The pelvic bones may still be under the decomposing body at Kincaid and another search will be made after more of the carcass decomposes, Gunderson said.

The whale was an adult male, about 42 feet long, and weighed as much as a tractor-trailer. The skull alone is the size of a Subaru.

People in Hope spotted the carcass in late June and it washed ashore at Kincaid in early July. Tests on the body provided no clues as to its cause of death, but Gunderson said future examination of the bones may yet provide a clue.

As the summer progressed, wild scavengers were not a problem, but eight of the ribs disappeared.

Gunderson said it is possible — and understandable — that people may have picked up a rib or two as a souvenir, not knowing that the museum wanted to recover the entire skeleton.

He said he would be glad to retrieve any bones the next time he is in Anchorage to help complete the skeleton and do justice to the animal. Write to Gunderson at amgunderson@alaska.edu if you can help him track down the lost bones.

The retrieval effort was made possible by a grant from the North Pacific Research Board, but the pace of future work is still unclear, as it depends on funding for what is an ambitious project.

In Glacier Bay National Park, a National Park Service project to display the skeleton of a humpback took more than a decade of off-and-on labor to clean the whale bones. "Bones were soaked in saltwater, buried in compost, pressure washed, submersed in gasoline, boiled in metal stock tanks, and bleached in the sun. Each bone had its own prescribed treatment," the Park Service said.

Gunderson aims to try a different approach to cleaning the bones. "This is low maintenance," he said. "We bury it and forget about it."

He usually works with cleaning the bones of small animals in a building not close to the museum where special beetles eat flesh from specimens. The size of humpback whale bones makes indoor treatment impractical.

"We will let the bacterial decomposition remove all the oil as well as the remaining flesh so we can avoid the labor and chemical processes they had to use on that whale" in Glacier Bay, Gunderson said.  "If we wait long enough the oil will be gone when we dig it up out of the sand."

The goal is to reconstruct the skeleton hundreds of miles from the ocean and elevate it, a silent reminder of a magnificent creature that once had the power to lift itself entirely out of the water.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.