Reconstructing a whale that washed up dead

Nine years later, an orca skeleton takes shape at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. The work-in-progress is on display this weekend in Port Townsend.

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Nine years later, an orca skeleton takes shape at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. The work-in-progress is on display this weekend in Port Townsend.

To fully appreciate nature’s handiwork, or God’s creation, just try replicating it. Start with the pieces, and assemble them into something resembling the original.

Down at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, volunteers have been at it for weeks, piecing together the skeleton of a 25-foot orca whale. At one table, a volunteer carefully brushes dust particles from crevices in a skull the size of a wheelbarrow. Another measures and drills a quarter-inch hole in a finbone. Another does the same with vertebrae eight inches in diameter.

Gradually, their efforts are taking the shape of the noble creature which will eventually hang from the ceiling of the local aquarium.

“This is the most exciting part of a very long project,” said Libby Palmer, project manager for the science center.

It’s been nine years since orca CA189 washed up dead on Dungeness Spit. Wildlife officials buried the carcass in a Sequim cow pasture, where it remained for six years. In 2008, it was dug up, the bones having been cleaned by years of bacterial action, and turned over to the Marine Science Center on a long-term loan.

The bones have been identified, studied and carefully labeled. A team of technicians from Idaho spent several days photographing them in 3-D for a high-tech reference site. And now comes the reconstruction.

The work-in-progress will be open to the public at an extended open house that continues this weekend (Feb. 12-13), from noon to 4 p.m. at the Natural History exhibit at Fort Worden. The exhibit is free.

Meanwhile, the bone-building continues under the watchful tutelage of Lee Post, alias “The Boneman.” Post is a softspoken Alaskan who has spent much of his adult life re-constructing the skeletons of marine mammals and other northern wildlife. He’s spending a month here, overseeing the project.

His credentials? By profession, Post is a bookseller and bicycle mechanic. If a PhD exists for bone-building, he doesn’t have it. Instead, he brings to the project 30 years of rare experience, 10 detailed guidebooks, and a passion for Alaskan wildlife. It started in 1979, when he was running his small bookstore and repairing bicycles in Homer, Alaska. He also volunteered at the local natural history museum, which asked if he would be interested in doing something with the bones of a beached whale.

Post researched the idea, but couldn’t find much information. There were plenty of whale skeletons in museums around the world. “But most of them date to the 19th Century, when there was a lot of interest in dinosaurs and whales,” Post says. “And over time, they got dismantled and put into storage. And there was nobody out there who knew how to do it.”

Post was not discouraged. “Homer is a lot like Port Townsend,” he says. “It’s a small town at the end of the road, where people are used to figuring out how to do things for themselves.”

By necessity, he used tools and materials readily available: a Black and Decker power drill, stainless screws, steel pipe and threaded rods from the local hardware store. When he needed to fill the gaps between vertebrae, he turned to local shipwrights who showed him how to use clear, silicon caulk. “It’s non-toxic, easy to work with, and it lasts forever,” he says.

When that project was finished, he constructed more — a bald eagle, a sea otter, a Stellar sea lion.  At one point, he and other volunteers salvaged the carcass of a giant sperm whale from a remote beach, towed it back to Homer and worked with local high school students to reconstruct the skeleton.

Along the way, he kept records and drawings of his efforts, and began writing manuals for future bone-builders.  At first, he did them by hand, then on computer.  Now there are 10 of them, with detailed instructions on assembling creatures ranging from birds and small mammals to moose, wolves, and various whale species.

“So now the world comes to me to ask about these things,” he says with some amazement.

So it was that Libby Palmer and the Marine Science Center staff were looking for somebody to help reconstruct their orca. There has to be book, she figured, so she checked out the city library, which had copies of Post’s manuals. Remarkably, Post had recently visited a friend here, and was willing to come back.

“The federal wildlife people were nervous at first,” Post says. “But, when they saw my work, they relaxed.”

Meanwhile, the “bone-building” profession has made a bit of a comeback.  Post is in touch with others who work with museums around the world. “We’re all self taught,” he says. “It’s ridiculous to suggest you need a PhD to do this work.”

What it takes, he says, is time, patience, volunteers, and a passion for both the mystery and mechanics of the natural world. “I’m fascinated by the mechanics. You learn so much about how different species live and move.”

At the same time, Post is working with students and volunteers, mentoring the next  generation of bone-builders who will be ready the next time something interesting washes up on a Puget Sound beach.

This story originally ran in the Port Townsend Leader.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Ross Anderson

Ross Anderson is a former Seattle Times reporter who now lives in Port Townsend.