Building a Whale

On Saturday, 23 February 2019, a 29-foot gray whale was found washed ashore on Longbranch Beach, off the north side of Taylor Bay on the southern end of the Kistap Peninsula.

It’s not a rare occurrence, whales washing ashore in Washington, but I’d been waiting two years for this one: the right length to hang in the science building at Seattle Pacific University, and close enough to town that I could get a crew to the whale to retrieve her bones.

The Longbranch Whale

Performing the Necropsy

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration granted SPU permission to retrieve and then display this whale’s skeleton for educational purposes. The first step was to determine the cause of death. Led by Jessie Huggins and Dyanna Lambourn, Cascadia Research Collective performed a necropsy, noting that while this gray was covered in orca teeth marks, she likely died of starvation.

Captain Vernon Moore towed the whale 17 miles into Gig Harbor aboard the Sea 3, the smallest surface vessel to reach the north pole. Hartwell Champagne and his crew at the Gig Harbor Marina & Boatyard lifted the water-logged whale from the water using his ship hoist. According to its scales, she weighed 16,000 lbs.

Hoisting the Whale

Flensing the Whale | Photo by Daniel Wright

The whale was then taken to a farm for flensing. A crew of 27—made up of volunteers from Cascadia Research Collective, Highline College’s Marine Science and Technology Center, and Seattle Pacific University—worked seven hours to retrieve her bones. They were buried in manure, which will leech out the oil over the next year.

Once the bones are oil-free, they’ll be placed outside to bleach in the sun. In August 2020, SPU will host a course for 15 students to build the skeleton for permanent display in Eaton Hall. The course will be taught by Rus Higley, who’s built three other whale skeletons and is the mastermind behind every stage of this project.

For more, see my essay “How to Build a Whale,” as well as this video from earlier in the project.

Many thanks to the many people who have lent a hand in this effort:

From the community

Vernon Moore, Nate Slater, Chewy the Dog, Kent Cardwell, Hartwell Champagne, Mark Rybin, Wes Dennis, Stan Macumber, Joel Wiebe, Petra Radmanovich, Veronica Myrsell, Alan Scruggs, Isaac Anderson, Krister Persing, and Eric Moe.

From Highline College’s Marine Science and Technology Center

Rus Higley, Joanne Park, Randi Weinstein, Randy Williams, KC Johnston, Matt Wilson, Bri Gabel, April Stout, Lelania Rodda, Katy Kachmarik, Maddie Karns, and Lydia Garas.

From Cascadia Research Collective

Clay Wilburn, Mackenzie Davidson, and Jessie Huggins.

From the King/Snohomish County Stranding Network

Rachel Mayer.

From Seattle Pacific University

Daniel Wright, Eric Long, Katie Douglass, John Douglass, Ryan Ferrer, Lindsey Minerva, Tim Nelson, David Rither, Dominic Williamson, John Pearson, Dave Church and SPU’s Facilities crew, Bruce Congdon, Margaret Brown, and President Daniel Martin.

And from Donors

Western Prince Whale Watching, Erin and Sam Morrison, David and Joyce Bartholomae, and Erin and Sam Morrison.

If you would like to donate to this project, click here and type “Whale” for your designation. If you have any questions, contact me here.

Orca Ribcage