By Naomi Klouda
It took a small army of volunteers to transport whole segments of a gray whale skeleton into the Pratt Museum on Saturday. The tail alone was 10-feet long and weighed just under 500 pounds. The body was 20 feet, and each fin was 8 feet long.
The gray whale going on exhibit at the Pratt Museum Feb. 1 took a long journey from the storage shed to the museum floor. But that’s just a parcel of the epic travails the 38-foot whale has endured since its death in June 1999 in Halibut Cove.
Lee Post, the foremost authority on whale articulation in the state, led 51 volunteers through 49 days of reconstruction over the summer as they put the segments together. They worked daily from July 1 to Aug. 26.
“Today is the day that we’re going to call the project done,” Post told his volunteers Aug. 26 at the museum. “The problem being – as long as it is in sections floating around in space like some chopped-up zombie, it’s hard to wrap myself around any sense of done-ness.”
Now, Post will spend the next few weeks achieving a sense of closure. He will be putting the skeleton whole, then “riggers” will come in and rig it to the ceiling.
“These are the same people who do the rigging on boat masts, using cables and winches,” Post said. “They are the ones putting it up in the air and I am the one putting the whale together.”
Post has been with this whale the whole way, clear back to its death in 1999. It is one of several whales he has worked on in the past 30 years, a process of learning the techniques for decomposing flesh to get at bones, then preserving bones and placing them back together again. There weren’t any experts to ask, so Lee became the bone expert himself, and created the manual for others to follow.
The beaked whale hanging in the Homer High School commons was his first whale project. By the time it came to the Halibut Cove gray whale, Post had several things figured out.
“A small group of us first went out to look (in June, 1999) and see what kind of whale it was and see if it was something we wanted to deal with,” he recalled.
Once they figured out they would like to keep the skeleton, the next step was to consider the options for decomposing the flesh.
“We considered dropping it into the bottom of the Bay,” Post said. “That can be the easiest or least labor-intensive way of cleaning these things.”
But then, one has to consider the whale could float away or come apart. They decided to butcher the whale into parts that could then separately decompose.
“At the time, someone suggested using big crab pots we could put it in,” Post explained. “(Rep.) Paul Seaton had big crab pots he used on his commercial fishing boat, the Totem, we used to drop the pots into the Bay. The skull went with volunteers in Jack Hughes’ boat, the Smoky Bay, and was dropped in Halibut Cove Lagoon to decompose.” Post also noted the generosity of Marian Beck, who used her boat to transport whale parts.
The flippers were sunk into horse manure for their decomposition.
With the whale segmented out like that, its bones soaked under salty water for nine months. Then they had to be fished back out of the bay and transported to the museum where they were left outside for another summer and worked on intermittently.
At that point, Post and his volunteers were picking off the remaining flesh or connective tissue and cartilage. The bones were muddy and needed to be scrubbed.
“At some point, we took the bones on a trailer, took them to the car wash and sprayed them with hot soapy water,” Post said.
“After the bones were clean and dry, they went into the crawl space of the museum workshop where it was a little moist. Over time, they would have to be brought up and a group of interns painted a consolidant, or plastic, on them to make the bones more solid and then they were placed back in the crawl space.”
Finally, in January 2012, Post said he heard that they were looking for a whale to form part of an exhibit envisioned by Holly Cusack-McVeigh, the previous currator. Someone asked about the bones in the basement.
Post came back into the picture to help figure it out. How would they get the bones back into the museum once they were put together? They crunched timelines.
“We decided to go for having the whole thing articulated,” Post said. “We decided to do this as a community project, rather than a hire-somebody-to-put-it-together deal.”
So, from July 1 to Aug. 26, Post and his loyal 49 helpers worked each day to construct each of the segments: the 10-foot long tail, the 20-foot body, the 8-foot fins, the skull and the jaw pieces. But the workshop wasn’t big enough to get all of it together to see what it looked like.
“We’ve never seen it all put together yet,” he said.
Scott Bartlett, the Pratt Museum curator, arrived in Homer to his new position in time to inherit the whale. He came from museum work in the Puget Sound area and is an ethnomusicologist.
“I have never had a whale project before,” he said. He arrived in September, but was able to observe some of the articulation going on in the workshop that summer. Since arriving, he’s been immersed in whales in order to curate the “Encounters: Whales in our Waters.” It opens on Feb. 1, in a First Friday celebration.
“When you’re looking at the gray whale story, the story is really a community story,” Bartlett said. “Fifty people helped butcher it, and it took a lot of the community to put the skeleton together this summer. It’s the story of how we interact with whales through sightseeing and education. It’s been an exciting project to come in on.”
Post agrees that it is the perfect exhibit for introducing the Halibut Cove gray whale skeleton to the public.
“So many people got involved in it, it kind of took off with a life of its own,” he said.
One memorable contributor was artist Gaye Wolfe, who passed away last fall.
“The whale was her last art project before she died,” Post said. “Wolfe and her husband, Sam Smith, took a major role.”
The whale’s bones were stained, so Wolfe bleached parts white and darkened bone that had bleached too white.
“Rather than have it look like something that had been attacked by kids with spray paint, she blended it together to darken the lighter and lighten the darker spots.”
As part of the exhibit, there will be lengthy lists of volunteers who worked on the gray whale through the years, including Betsy Webb and Carol Harding, who led the butchering expedition.
But for now, Post is concentrating on this last phase of getting the whale whole and seeing it winched to the museum ceiling. Exhibited, the whale will seem returned to its original form.
“With luck, it will be swimming again here in a few weeks,” Post said.
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