• Winter light on the Fairweather Range

    Glacier Bay

    National Park & Preserve Alaska

Whale 68: Articulation Phase I


Getting Started

By December 2011, the park realized that the final cleaning and articulation of a 45 1/2 foot humpback whale skeleton would require not only hiring an "outside" expert, but someone who could manage the project at Glacier Bay. In April 2012, a two-year term position was created to oversee all aspects of contract management, and education/outreach. Final cleaning and repairs would be no easy task. It would require a team of dedicated park staff, engineers, articulation specialists, artists and builders a little over two years to complete the job.

Phase I of the Park's two year Whale 68 Articulation Project began when Glacier Bay contracted with Whale Articulation Specialist, Dan DenDanto of Whales and Nails (Seal Cove, ME), to clean, repair and fabricate new bones for an outdoor exhibit.

How Does a Humpback Whale Travel from Alaska to Maine?

In September 2012, Dan DenDanto made his very first trip to Juneau, Alaska! Once in Juneau, he rented a U-Haul truck and ferried to Glacier Bay. Over the next several days, he inventoried and loaded up the entire skeleton for cross-country transport. NPS Whale biologist, Chris Gabriele, provided support during the inventory and park maintenance staff assisted in moving the heaviest bones (skull and mandibles) from storage cache to the truck. Prior to loading, Dan built large racks that were temporarily installed to support and secure the bones during transit. With some help from park staff to move the skull and mandibles, Dan packed up the entire skeleton in just two days. On September 27th 2012, Dan left the park with some very important cargo. Whale 68's skeleton represented 11 years of park and volunteer effort, new scientific discoveries, tragedy and hope, and an opportunity for future visitors to connect with Glacier Bay National Park and an endangered species. The park and community would eagerly await her return in the Spring of 2014. Dan ferried back to Juneau to begin his journey east. Once in Juneau, he boarded a ferry to Bellingham, WA. It took 4 days on the the Alaska Marine Highway and 2600 miles of highway driving to transport Whale 68's bones from Glacier Bay National Park to Seal Cove, ME.

Upon returning to Maine, Dan took on the biggest challenge of the project - cleaning the entire skeleton. All cleaning, repairs and replacements had to withstand year-round outdoor exposure in a harsh marine climate. Even more important, the bones had to be odor free as not to attract bears, rodents or other animals. The park did not want humpback whale ribs on a brown bears lunch menu! Coming from a coastal marine environment himself, Dan was up for the challenge right from the start.

Park team moves humpback whale mandible
How many people does it take to move a 260 lb. humpback whale mandible? It took a crew of five to move each mandible from the storage shed to the truck.  Heavy equipment had to be used to move the 792 lb. skull.
NPS Photo

How Do You Clean a Whale?

The answer to that question is, "very carefully."

For eleven years, the park experimented with various methods of flensing (stripping blubber and skin) and degreasing Whale 68's oily bones. Marine mammal articulation experts, Lee Post (www.theboneman.com) and Mike deRoos (http://cetacea.ca), were instrumental in guiding the park during this process. Park staff and community volunteers spent over a thousand hours retrieving, cleaning and degreasing Whale 68's bones. Despite their efforts, the skeleton could not be cleaned to satisfy the requirements for an outdoor coastal exhibit. While many of Whale 68's bones were relatively clean, many others were still dripping with pungent oil. The photo below indicates the degree of oil saturation in the flipper bones (humerus, radius, ulna) which would still need extensive cleaning.

Oily bones
Oily bones in need of cleaning.
Whale 68's rib bones before final cleaning at Whales and Nails

Ribs, vertebra, and tray of phalanges (flipper bones) before final cleaning - in bone cache at  Bartlett Cove.

NPS Photo

Cleaning Basics

Dan used many different techniques to clean Whale 68's bones. Each was dependent upon the condition, amount of oil, and type of bone. He started with the oiliest bones first, which included the flipper bones and some of the vertebrae. All of the bones received an initial steam cleaning with a hot water pressure washer to remove superficial surface mold and dirt. This type of cleaning was done outside using a sturdy surface to stabalize the bones. Once pre-treated, Dan sorted the bones according to their prescribed treatment.

The Hot Soak Tank

To begin the degreasing process, the bones were soaked in a hot 170 degree hot water tank using a degreasing agent. An individual soak would last from 2 to 5 days, depending on the severity of the oil contamination, size of the bone, or the tank being used. Dark, oily water was exchanged with clean water to maximize the soaking process. Some bones had to be heat soaked three or four times before oils were completely released from the bone marrow. Immediately following a detergent soak, the bones were mechanically washed using a hot pressure washer or scrubbed by hand using a brush.

Dan pressure washes a flipper bone
Dan uses a hot water pressure washer to remove superficial oil, dirt, and mold.
NPS Photo
Hydrogen Peroxide Soak Tank

This large soak tank was custom built by Whales and Nails. It can accommodate several large vertebrae along with various other bones..

NPS Photo

The Peroxide Tank

Most of the bones that underwent a detergent soak were then soaked for a period of time in a peroxide tank. Using a specially formulated hyderogen peroxide solution, the bones were immersed and allowed to soak from 1 to 7 days. The length of the soak depended on the severity of the stains. The solution started out clear and turned dark as the bones released more oil. At the end of the soak, the bones came out of the solution, were dried, and then evaluated for further treatments. Occasionally, a bone went back in the tank several times to remove stubborn oils.

Sun Bleaching

Clean, dry bones were placed in the sun to unergo natural bleaching. The sunlight "homogenized" the bones giving them all the same creamy bone color. Now they were ready for the next phase - repair and fabrication.

Clean Phalanges Ready for the Sun
Clean phalanges sorted and ready for the sun. A few weeks of exposure will act as a natural bleaching agent homogenizing the color.
NPS Photo

Did You Know?

Interstadial Stump

Interglacial stumps can range from 250 to 10,000 years old. Some of these stumps are remnants of forests that predate the Little Ice Age and can help researchers understand the climate history of Glacier Bay.