WHALING IN THE MUSEUM
Museum volunteer and medical professional Dr. Cindy Shrayer 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.
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.
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 call comes together
From our email conversations with Cindy, the following are among her comments on inevitable surprises encountered during assembly
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
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
“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
(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.)
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
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.