Team refits 165 gray whale bones for Kodiak display

Skeleton to be the only one of its kind in Alaska

Posted: Sunday, March 04, 2007

KODIAK - All the king's men and all the king's horses did put the pieces back together again, for the skeleton of a California gray whale.

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It may not have been true for Humpty Dumpty, but for a whale soon to be on display in Kodiak at the new National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center now under construction, all 165 bones are being fitted with nuts and bolts like a puzzle, with silicon and steel pipe and rods providing bonding.

Reconstruction of the California whale is unlike any other in the United States.

Its rearticulation, a term for putting the whale back together, has several characteristics that make it a rare specimen.

The whale arrived on Pasagshak Beach in May of 2000 from its migratory route in waters of Baja California.

What makes this one whale special is the way it is being put back together.

Conservationist Stacy Studebaker, who heads the reconstruction team, traveled coast to coast making observations of other skeletal whale displays to find out how best to display "Gordie," the name of the gray being restored. The whale is named after her 95-year-old father who also helped in the restoration.

Studebaker visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts and the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Boston to gather facts about whale restoration.

The gray whale, to hang from the top second floor of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, will be the only re-articulated gray whale skeleton on display in Alaska.

Studebaker also enlisted restoration expertise from Lee Post of Homer to help in the Kodiak project. Post is the author of a series of 10 books on animal restoration, including sea lions, moose, ungulates, birds, other whales and bears.

Once the skeleton is complete, including cleaning and joint work, it will not be put entirely together until it is moved inside the visitor center. It would be too big to get through any of the centers entranceways as a complete whale. It will have to be moved in parts: the skull and jawbones, main body, tail, flippers and ribs.

The move to the whale's permanent resting place inside the center is expected in mid-September. The center is expected to open by the end of October.

One thing that makes the whale a one-of-a-kind is the motion that has been built into its pose. It is constructed like an S-curve.

Welder Stanley Wolrich bent a 2-inch steel pipe that runs the entire length of the backbone so that the whale on display will look as if swimming through ocean waters. Otherwise, the whale would look stiff, like a giant toothpick with legs.

Behind the whale, after it is hanging from the second floor, will be a wall of ocean blue. The whale can be seen from all sides, from bottom to top, and underneath as viewers climb the stairs from the first floor to the second floor, which measures about 25 feet high. The whale's head will be positioned in a downward motion, with an arch in its back, tail up, just above an opening between the two floors.

There is a certain amount of mystery attached to the whale. No one knows why or how the whale died when it washed on the beach at Pasagshak. There was no physical damage.

Then there is the question of the whale's actual age. Most place the male whale as a young adult, about 7 to 10 years old. But some whales can live 80 to 100 years. The epiphyses were fused, a sign the whale had stopped growing. An epiphysis is a flat bone plate at the anterior and posterior parts of each vertebra that, in the early stages of growth, is separated by cartilage but later ossifies with the vertebra, leaving growth lines similar to a ring on a tree trunk.

The gray whale like all other mammals, from mouse to man has seven cervical vertebrae or neck bones. In most mature large whales, the cervical vertebrae are fused, but none were in this whale.

"It's a mystery," Studebaker said.

"Vertebrae fuse together in some big whales. However, on this whale, none of the neck vertebrae were," she said.

Studebaker said the entire whale project has been a process of discovery. After teaching biology for 20 years in Kodiak, she has a second sense about all things science. She discovered the dead whale floating in the water while kayaking in a bay off Pasagshak Beach and saw it as an opportunity, "the ultimate science project."

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