Kodiak to dig out buried whale for eventual display of skeleton

Posted: Friday, August 06, 2004

KODIAK - More than four years after it was buried, a gray whale carcass will emerge next week on the way to eventual public display as an articulated skeleton in a new Kodiak Wildlife Refuge visitors center.

"We Dig Whales" gets under way Aug. 13 with a weeklong excavation, unearthing remains buried in June 2000 to allow the flesh to decay.

"The end product should be something the community is really proud of," said project coordinator Stacey Studebaker.

Studebaker and her husband, Mike Sirofchuck, saw the dead whale drifting at sea while they were kayaking. When the whale beached on state land, Studebaker saw an opportunity to recover a bit of natural history and organized the burial in a 40-foot trench with volunteer help.

"At that time I had no idea where we were going to put the skeleton," she said.

The answer came during conversations with Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge manager Leslie Kerr last December. Kerr suggested making the whale skeleton an attraction in a new visitors center planned for the refuge.

"It just seemed like a neat opportunity," Kerr said. "What else do you do with a 35-foot whale skeleton?"

Earlier this year, a test hole dug to check the decomposition showed the whale was ready for the next stage of the project.

"We hit bare bones," Studebaker said.

Because of the formidable size of the animal, Studebaker compared the process to assembling a dinosaur. Whale skeleton expert Lee Post of Homer is expected to take the lead for that part of the project.

His projects include a 41-foot sperm whale on display in Homer High School, an orca in Cordova, and displays in Homer, Anchorage and Kodiak.

To articulate the hard, fossilized bones of a dinosaur skeleton, conservators usually use exterior ligatures and welded frameworks. Epoxy glue and steel rods will be more the order for the gray whale.

With whale bones, regular woodworking tools suffice to bore holes for internal connectors.

"For as big and massive as they are, they're amazingly soft," Post said.

That part of the project probably lies about a year in the future, after one more important step. Even with the flesh gone, it will take that long for the natural oil within the bones to come out.

Post said burying them in horse manure is the latest, best technique for hurrying that along.

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