Killer Whale Articulation

Drilling the holes
Ranger Melissa uses a file to slightly widen the drill hole to ensure a good fit on the pipe. 

NPS Photo


The articulation of Keet'k was the highlight of the entire nine year project. It took place in February, in a small, heated, workshop beside the Gustavus K-12 school. The location provided convenient access for the community and afforded the students and staff daily visits to the shop. Most of the work was done by Articulation Specialist, Lee Post, park staff, and a handful of school and community volunteers. The high school students got involved by painting the 48 cast teeth and matching up the growth plates to their corresponding vertebrae. Because Keet'k was such a young whale the growth plates had not yet fused to the vertebrae and had to be glued in place before the vertebrae could go together. It took only 10 days to complete the articulation.

Tail section of backbone
Lee checks to see if the two sections of the spine will fit together properly.

NPS Photo

The Backbone and Skull
When building anything, including a whale, you start out with a foundation. The foundation for Keet'k was a seventy-five inch long, 3/4" schedule-40 steel pipe. Holes were drilled into twenty-eight vertebrae and threaded onto the pipe. Next, seventeen tail vertebrae were strung on decreasing sizes of all-thread rod pieces and welded together. The two pipes were joined and locked into place. Small foam doughnuts were made and placed in between each vertebra to act as spacing. Silicone caulk was then added to hide the metalwork and lock the bones into place. The skull and cervical vertebrae were supported by a fabricated skull cradle which was then inserted into the front end of the large hollow pipe and locked into place. Hanging brackets were welded onto the pipes so that none of the bones were directly used to support the skeleton.
A very proud volunteer!
A very proud volunteer!

NPS Photo

The Flippers

Reconstructing the flippers was the most time consuming and labor intensive part of the articulation. It took the entire ten days to drill holes, fasten wires, and add the cartilage. A very eager volunteer worked several hours almost daily to help with the process. She served as an apprentice for the first two days as Lee explained and demonstrated the process from start to finish. He used an x-ray of a flipper from a killer whale he had previously known to help guide the placement of the bones and shape of each finger. Once the bones were in place, silicone caulk was used to fill in the gaps and give the flippers their distinctive form. Working with caulk was a sticky job, but Lee introduced the team to bubble soap! By dipping their fingers into the soap before touching the caulk, it allowed them to smooth and mold it to a beautiful finish. It was a form of art.

Adding the cartilage
Lee and Ranger Kelly use soapy fingertips to smooth the sticky silicone cartilage

NPS Photo

The Ribs

It took several long days and evenings before the ribs were secure and ready for cartilage. The rib cage was articulated using small pins that joined each rib to its corresponding vertebra. Once all the ribs were stable, the bones and the ribs of the sternum were put together and carefully joined to the upper ribs to form the rib cage. It took many layers of silicone caulk to cover the exposed wires and create the finished look of cartilage. Because Keet'k was such a small whale, some of her bones had not yet grown to their full size requiring Lee to use quite a bit of caulk to fill in the spaces.

Adding the metal tail outline
Lee added Keet'k's flukes using a removable metal tail frame

NPS Photo

The Tail

Lee created a metal tail outline to preserve the space at end of the tail vertebrae. It was modeled from a killer whale photo and scaled to the size of Keet'k's flukes. Because there are no bones in a whale's tail, when a skeleton is articulated there is nothing to suggest a tail was ever there. Lee stated that by highlighting that part of Keet'k's anatomy, it would help visitors identify her as a whale instead of a dinosaur - a common mistake. Lee received lots of positive input from park staff and the community and decided to add his metal tail flukes.


There are many steps to putting a whale back together!

Go back to Articulation and Installation


Last updated: April 14, 2015

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Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve
PO Box 140

Gustavus, AK 99826


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