Response Magazine

English professor Peter Moe seeks whale skeleton for campus

Peter Moe holds the right lower jawbone of the whale skeleton he is pilot testing.

Assistant Professor of English Peter Moe is hunting a whale.

The whale he wants will already have died, and his search mostly involves waiting for a phone call, but the chase is on.

When he finds the perfect skeleton — 30 feet, long enough to be impressive but short enough to hang in the Eaton Hall lobby on campus — Moe and his assembled team of whale carcass hunters will jump to action.

Moe’s whale fascination spans decades. He hopes, when his quest is complete, the one-ton whale skeleton will inspire the same awe and wonder for visitors that he felt when he was 8 years old.

Peter moe's collection pf whale related things on his shelf
Moe’s bookshelves highlight his interest in whales.

He was living in landlocked Eastern Washington when his parents took him to an exhibit that included life-size plastic whales hanging in a dark warehouse.

“It was freaky, with all these giant animals hanging above your head, with weird sounds of whale songs playing on the speakers,” he said. “I remember being absolutely terrified.”

hands holding whale bones
Peter Moe holds a sheet of baleen from the right upper jaw of a gray whale. The Makah Indian Tribe took a sample from this whale, leaving the empty space below Moe’s left hand.

His trepidation sparked curiosity, and he began poring through a book about orca research in the San Juan Islands. The book was 300 pages long, filled with charts and data — not children’s reading — but he read it over and over, absorbing the academic writing style along with the information about whales. After that, he couldn’t stop drawing pictures of the animals.

Moe’s present-day whale hunt quickly overcame some early obstacles. Because he plans to hang the skeleton on a university campus, it was simple to get a permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Fundraising for the $30,000 project is underway.

Bruce Congdon, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences’ STEM and social sciences division, readily approved the plan to hang the skeleton in Eaton Hall. In fact, the architect originally suggested hanging a whale skeleton by the large bank of windows in the lobby, but it proved to be too expensive and too time-consuming, so the chase lagged.

Now Moe is just awaiting the right whale.

When a dead whale that is the right size washes ashore in an accessible location, Moe and his team will get a call from NOAA and jump into action. They’ll tow the whale carcass by boat to Tacoma and then drive it to a farm to clean. Then, Moe will work with veteran whale assembler Rus Higley from Highline College to host a summer institute on campus, where students will articulate the skeleton by drilling holes, inserting rods, and hanging the bones from the ceiling with cables.

“The curves on the bones are absolutely gorgeous… I wasn’t prepared for that.”

Moe is in the midst of a trial run for the lengthy process. In June 2017, he and a group of volunteers removed around two dozen bones from a gray whale carcass that washed up on a beach. Whale bones are full of oil that is heavy and messy, so Moe and his team buried the bones in manure to leach the oil over the following year. This summer, Moe dug up the bones and placed them on a campus rooftop, where they will bleach in the sun for another year.

Peter Moe is moving some whale bones
Moe turns the bones of the test skeleton every month so the sun can brighten them.

“When I buried them, they were covered in all sorts of blood, flesh, tissue, and gore. They were totally nasty,” he said. “When I dug them up after a year, all the flesh and blood was completely gone. Everything had just turned into dust, and I immediately thought about the verse, ‘From dust you came and to dust you shall return.’”

The scientific aspects of whale skeleton preparation often inspire literary and aesthetic reflections for Moe. He was surprised by how beautiful the bones had become after their year buried in manure.

He was surprised by how beautiful the bones had become after their year buried in manure.

“The curves on the bones are absolutely gorgeous. Even now as they’re brightening on the roof, there’s almost a wood grain look, and I wasn’t prepared for that,” he said. “I was still just thinking that bones are these utilitarian things that hold our bodies together and support our weight.”

He frequently feels like he’s enacting the passage in Ezekiel 37 where God wraps dry skeletons in flesh and breathes life into them — only he is stripping down a skeleton to display a new aspect of the natural world.

“These animals are so huge. When you see one in the wild, you get only a tiny glimpse of it. You could be looking at a 100-foot animal and you’re seeing only 8 feet,” he said. “Every time I see a whale skeleton I have a sense of awe.”

This story originally ran on pages 8–9 of the autumn 2018 issue of Response with the headline “A Tale of a Whale.”

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