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Whaling in the Museum

Museum volunteer and medical professional Dr. Cindy Schraer and her husband David have diligently, if not frustratingly, worked for months on a partial skeleton the museum received in boxes last Summer. Now complete and suspended beautifully in the museum, we’ll give you the story behind the scenes:

A whale of a story indeed

As with most things that come into a museum, the story behind the scenes is often as interesting as the objects itself. This is no exception.

cleaning the whale
cleaning the whale

cleaning the whale on the beach
ckeaning whale

The whale was found beached in 2004 near Hope (see photos) and after an arduous flensing and moving the carcass was taken to Athenium School in Anchorage for preparation. By sheer coincidence, Cindy was celebrating her birthday with a friend who’s birthday is the same day. When they started comparing “whale notes” he mentioned that his son attends Athenium school and offered to bury the carcass in his back yard. This would effectively remove all but the bones over a period of time.

mounting the skeleton

Since the skeleton arrived at the Museum incomplete and in several boxes, Cindy found herself involved in sleuthing of the first degree in locating information on the skeletal structure of beluga whales, most notably the bones of the fins, which resemble those of human hand-bones. Lee Post of Homer was most instrumental in supplying Cindy with information needed to accomplish the daunting task of reassembly. 

It all comes together

From our email conversations with Cindy, the following are among her comments on inevitable surprises encountered during assembly

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We have the whole spine suspended from our ceiling and are at work on the rib cage and figuring out how to make the front of the jawbones. We think the best way to do this is by casting some jaws that we have on loan from the universtiy.

 

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mounting ribs

We're into the rib cage, and have successfully manufactured all the missing ribs. I feel really bad that the whole thing is just taking much longer than we thought, partly due to our own inexperience and partly due to so many missing key parts. Dave's skills and thoughts on how to do things are crucial--I could never have done this alone and most of it needs at least 2 pairs of hands.

I think it's time to have someone look at the work and get ready to set up the suspension in the ceiling. I think we can complete the rib cage and with a little luck the head, but we'll have to finish the hands and other details at the museum if it's to go up before I leave town from Oct 13 through the 23rd.

“The whale is coming along--almost have the jaws done, although we had a mishap and fractured a plaster mandible. It's epoxied back together now and we'll be moving again on it in the AM. This is how the whole darn thing has gone--two steps forward, 1.5 backward! Today after the big fracture, I said to Dave--"I'm never working on a busted up incomplete skeleton again!" Then I thought--So I want to be a paleontologist and fossil preparator? That's all they work with!”

“When the rib cage is done, hopefully tomorrow, we'll see just how the little stubby arms attach! One of the sides seemed to have had most of the flipper intact when the x-ray was taken. You can see the outline of the soft tissue pretty well so it should serve as a good pattern for the plexiglass flipper.”

 

plexiglass flipper
rib cage

 

(As one can see in the photos, not only were the fins problematic, but ribs and vertebra had to be reconstructed, fit and joined with synthetic discs, in this case silicone. Areas in red are reconstructed portions. Since there are few models available and no instruction books on how to reassemble a beluga whale, Lee post send Cindy an x-ray of the flippers that could be used in reconstruction.)

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The Schraer whaling crew is into the home stretch. We need to decide what color to paint the homemade bones and the areas of repair. The other thing we will need to make some of, is teeth, which perhaps should just be left white (we're making them out of white fimo clay). The natural bones are a sort of yellowish color and the fake ones are white or mottled purple-white. It turned out that to get the necessary strength in fimo-type clay for ribs you have to bake it to the point that it carmelizes, and this turns it purple.

more rib cage mounting
mounting the tail

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The whale's finally ready to swim! On the very last day of 2005, he's headed to a new life in the museum. Tom came over today to confer on the details of suspending him in the museum. I've hopefully attached 3 photos--the open mouth one was taken before the permanent mounting of the jaw, so there are"bite blocks" visible in the mouth. The Schraer-made bones are a more subdued color than before but still obviously different from the natural bone. The color we selected with Anne turned out to be so close to a number of the bones that it was very hard to distinguish. We then mixed a color that dried a bit darker than we had hoped over the span of two or three days, but hopefully it will be clear to kids which ones are fake, make the point about how much work is involved in creating missing parts, and yet not be too offensive to the scientific world.

The whale was installed with the Shrayer Whaling Crew and Anne Pasch Monday the 23rd of January. Since rigging for the suspension had been mostly figured out beforehand it was a straight forward matter of connecting suspension cables and hoisting it into an interesting position.

Next project for our “Whaling Crew?”: Finding and assembling an entire mammoth is being discussed for next summer.

mounted skeleton and crew
mounted skeleton