A Skeleton Crew

Photos by Joel Wiebe

In February 2019, a 29-foot gray whale washed ashore on Longbranch Beach in the Kitsap Peninsula. Seattle Pacific University professor Peter Moe had been waiting two years for this whale.

While there have been a number of whales washing ashore all along the West Coast, Moe had been looking for a whale of a specific length and in a location conducive to bringing a crew to retrieve the whale and eventually reassemble its skeleton in a building on SPU’s campus.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gave SPU permission to retrieve the whale and display its skeleton on campus for educational purposes.

moving a whale carcass

truck unloading a whale

The 16,000 lbs. whale was towed to Gig Harbor then hoisted ashore where students and volunteers spent seven hours flensing the whale (slicing the flesh and fat from the whale’s carcass). They buried the bones in manure so that nature could do the rest of the decomposing/cleanup work and leech oil from the whale’s bones.

In December, Seattle Pacific University students, along with volunteers from Highline College’s Marine Science and Technology Center, gathered to dig up the bones and wash them.

washing a whale bone
digging up whale bones

A few vertebrae and a humerus bone were missing — possibly carried off by coyotes or other wildlife — so students in SPU’s engineering department will 3D print the missing bones.

During the winter 2020 quarter, students in a vertebrate biology course will arrange the bones in preparation for assembly this summer. The summer course will be taught by Rus Higley of Highline College, who has built three other whale skeletons and has been a major part of making SPU’s project happen.

group of people cleaning whale bones

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