HOMER — In a classroom at the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College, students were spending their lunch hour with bones and teeth. Whale bones and teeth, to be exact. The fall semester was rolling towards its end, and the pressure was on to complete the articulation of a beluga whale skeleton.
I've long had an interest in belugas, going back 35 years to when I first fished among what was then a robust summer population on the west side of Cook Inlet. In life, belugas are striking, gleaming-white animals of, still, many mysteries.
In the classroom, bones were spread along a lengthy counter, with one section of backbone assembled on a hanging metal pipe. Instructor Lee Post, known widely as "the bone man," showed a student how to build up and smooth the silicon replacements for cartilage between vertebrae. At a table, another student worked with teeth, making casts to replace some of the pointy teeth that would be sent to researchers studying teeth as indicators of age.
The bones and teeth, separate from the once-living whale, were antiseptically clean, minimalist and disjointed, like parts of a model plane. And yet they were also beautiful, perfectly shaped by nature's design, each as lovely to admire as a well-made vase.
Sort, measure, clean, photograph
The particular whale being articulated was found floating in the upper inlet a couple of years ago, perhaps the victim of a boat strike. Earlier students helped conduct the necropsy and the burying and excavation of the bones. (Burial in horse manure allows bacteria to clean them.)
This fall, in a five-week course, students sorted, measured, photographed and further cleaned the bones before beginning the painstaking work of putting the 14-foot skeleton back together. Along the way, they learned anatomy and museum-level techniques for working with bones, including designing and fabricating metal supports.
When complete, the skeleton will be hung at the college to accompany a Stejneger's beaked whale, last year's articulation project.
I'm in awe of Lee Post. I watched as he worked with one student, then another — demonstrating, instructing, helping, encouraging, praising, making jokes. Post, a longtime resident and part-owner of the Homer Bookstore, literally wrote the books — a series of 10 manuals — on how to clean, prepare and articulate animal skeletons. He's led bone projects, mostly to do with whales, all over the country. He can, it seems, identify just about any bone of any animal and tell you where it goes and what it does. He's also an excellent scientific illustrator and sometimes teaches that as well.
In the classroom, Post held out a completed beluga flipper. With its hand-like bones, the flipper clearly illustrates the evolutionary path of whales from land mammals. The skeleton also includes small "floating" pelvic bones, detached from other bones, that are considered similar remnants and will be suspended below the skeleton with wire.
We turned to the beluga's skull, and Post pointed out that it includes more than 20 bones. These are fused in a fully mature whale, but in the young male before us, they'd been loose. The student in charge of the skull had tightened them with glue.
And here, a pile of ribs, awaiting attachment to the backbone.
'Richest bay in the world'
The students lucky enough to be working with Lee were participating in the campus's Semester By The Bay program, now in its fifth year. Each fall, students from around the country come to Homer for hands-on science classes, using Kachemak Bay as a classroom and lab. Fourteen marine or environmental science students were enrolled this fall, in classes that included marine biology, marine mammal biology, ichthyology and marine invertebrates — all of which have field-trip components. This year's students all had internships with local agencies and organizations; they helped with projects related to marine mammal strandings, marine debris, stream ecology, sea otter foraging, whale identification and plankton studies.
Debbie Tobin, the academic adviser and major force behind the program, popped in to see how things were going. Next year, they'd be putting together a killer whale skeleton. And there would be a new lab course. And, she mentioned, some of the students from past years were already back in Alaska, at grad school or in jobs, ready to become Alaska's next generation of marine scientists.
When I first came to Kachemak Bay in the early 1970s, the bay was often referred to, perhaps hyperbolically, as "the richest bay in the world," a testament to the mass and diversity of its sea life.
Today, it owns another distinction, less of richness and more of mystery and alarm, including unusual occurrences not easily explained. An unprecedented number of whales have fed in the bay since summer, while starved seabirds have washed up by the dozens. Since August, 117 dead or dying sea otters have been recorded on local beaches — this out of a population estimated at 5,800 animals. A toxic algal bloom temporarily shut down oyster farms, too.
If there's a classroom with more scientific relevance than Kachemak Bay, I can't imagine where it would be.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming." She teaches creative writing part-time at the Kachemak Bay campus and in UAA's low-residency MFA program.