Story and photos by Keri DeTore
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
The skeleton is 40 feet long and weighs 1,400 pounds. It’s surrounded by a wooden structure mimicking the exact structural space and framing of its eventual home at Highline Community College’s MaST (Marine and Science Technology) Center in Des Moines [map]. New kinds of riggings and connectors are being created to attach and hang it, and some of its bones are still laid out on the floor.
And it’s magnificent.
The “Arroyos Whale,” (so called by MaST Center manager Rus Higley [pictured above] and his crew) came to our attention in April 2010 when WSB extensively covered its stranding on a beach in The Arroyos in far-southwest West Seattle. Since then, it’s gone through quite a transformation, and The Arroyos Whale is giving us opportunities for research and education.
The whale is being called “The Arroyos Whale” rather than a name like “Willie” or “Shamu” for a very specific reason.
Says Rus Higley: “These animals are not pets. They’re a separate species and they should be respected as such. We should value wild animals for what they are and not place our own anthropomorphic (human characteristic) value on them.”
Asked how the MaST Center acquired the whale, Rus Higley tells this story:
“When the MaST Center got its new space, I thought ‘What a great place to hang a whale skeleton!’ It was a pie in the sky sort of thing at that point. I looked into what we’d need to do to get one and I sent an email to other staff people in April 2010, saying we should set things in motion to get a whale. Two hours after I sent that email, I got a call from Kristin Wilkinson of NOAA who said, ‘We have a dead whale in West Seattle and we know you want one. If you can help us get it moved to where we can do the necropsy, we’ll assign it to the MaST.’ So what was going to be a year out, was immediate.”
Whales are federally protected animals, so in order to acquire one, an organization needs to receive federal permission, and NOAA is the entity that provides that permission for whales. Essentially, while the Feds still own the whale, it’s on “permanent loan” to HCC.
What happened to the whale after it was towed from The Arroyos
After the tow (WSB coverage here), it was first taken to a private beach in Pierce County where the smell of decomposition and concerns about vandalism aren’t issues. The decomposition process was helped by foragers: at one point five bald eagles were seen foraging on the whale. When it came time to take the whale apart, Rus Higley sent out an e-mail requesting volunteers, which read, “We need help cutting up the whale; at the end of the day you’ll throw away your clothes.”
This e-mail, which garnered more than 50 volunteers, was sent not only to the biology department, but also to nursing students. Rus explains, “Anatomically, there’s lots of similarity between whale skeleton and human skeleton. (The nursing students) got experience they never would have otherwise gotten.”
Once the whale had been cut apart, the bones were moved to a farm in Kitsap and buried in manure. The bacteria helped to complete the decomposition and remove smells. When this process was complete, the bones were dug up, cleaned with soap and water, moved to a vacant storefront in Tacoma, laid out, inventoried and bleached.
These bones weren’t done traveling, however. They were then moved to the Foss Seaport Waterway space (where the interview for this story took place and where the photos were taken) for their test assemblage prior to their move to a permanent home at the MaST Center in a couple of weeks.
Cause of Death
Lots of media attention was given to the trash that was found in the whale’s stomach and whether this contributed to the whale’s death. Rus Higley explains that approximately 1/3 of the trash found was plastic, including plastic bags and “2/3 of the trash…was mostly rags and cloth, probably blown in the water from houses on beach, or washed into storm drains, where it then settled on the bottom (of Puget Sound.) The whale probably ate it at or near death and it may have come in while thrashing in shallow waters. Whales are like cows, they’re ungulates (having multiple stomachs.) We found the trash in the upper stomach; the reality is that it wasn’t degraded enough to have contributed to the whale’s death. Did it help? Probably not. Did it kill it? Probably not.”
As far as a conclusive cause of death—there isn’t one. “Cascadia Research Consortium, the nonprofit that works with NOAA and Fish and Wildlife checked the whale. There were no blunt force traumas, and no toxic causes. This one thin, but not starvation skinny, the results are inconclusive.”
What piqued the researchers’ interest as they studied the bones was the degree of heavy calcification (shown in photo) of the whale’s vertebrae that connect to the tail flipper, and two fused vertebrae near the base of the skull. Rus explains, “It’s arthritis. Our whale has arthritis.” Dr. Robert Ettlinger, a Tacoma rheumatologist, examined the skeleton and determined that the whale, which is 3-5 years old, (a teenager in whale years) had Juvenile Onset Arthritis. This raises more questions that it answers: was the arthritis caused by infection or injury? Did it contribute to the whale’s death? How common is arthritis in whales? The Arroyos Whale is providing researchers with valuable scientific fodder to help answer questions like these in the future.
Where to see The Arroyos Whale
Your chance to see the Arroyos Whale is coming soon, says MaST Center Executive Director Kaddee Lawrence (a West Seattle resident.) She says they will “unveil the whale” at the MaST Center on March 3rd from 10 am – 2 pm. The display is called “2010 Arroyo Gray Whale, Footprints of a Whale” and will feature the whale skeleton hanging from the 10-foot ceiling, as well as a “smell exhibit.” Since so many people were asking how the decomposed blubber smelled, they saved some of it. Kaddee Lawrence adds: “This has been a spectacular two-year adventure and truly a community project. Flying Color Paints donated the paint and the time to paint the area where the skeleton will be and United Rentals gave us lifts to make it all happen. Key Bank provided over half of the funding and we’ve had over 1100 volunteer hours.”
Though there are other gray whale skeletons on display in the Puget Sound area, this one will be unique in that it will also feature the baleen (the filter-feeder system inside a whale’s mouth) on the skeleton. Rus Higley describes it as “a brush of hair attached to rawhide. We’ll put it in the jaw and attach it. It’s really pretty cool.”
And it is pretty cool. On a personal note, the first unprofessional and grammatically incorrect question I asked when I arrived at the whale skeleton was, “Can I touch it?” I did. And it was magnificent.