FORT BRAGG — As light rain fell Monday, the carcass of a once-majestic 72-foot blue whale inched up the rocky shore, the steel winch cable groaning from the 80-ton weight.
The struggle ended when the bloated and battered behemoth's tail separated from its body, still 40 feet down a bluff near where it had come to rest after being killed last week in a collision with a research ship.
Still, the effort was met with cheers and whoops from biology students who had been waiting, long knives ready, to start collecting tissue and other parts from the whale as soon as it was on stable ground.
“It's time to dissect," said Humboldt State University biology student Shannon Kresge as she clambered down the cliff, oblivious to the stench.
The students sliced through blubber and flesh with homemade tools, then used ropes to pull back the flesh.
They will collect organs, tissue and other specimens before the whale is cut into more manageable pieces and hauled up the cliff. The remains will be buried for several years in a undisclosed spot in a private forest where microbes and bugs will strip the flesh from bone.
The whale then will be unearthed and its skeleton reconstructed and put on display somewhere in or near Fort Bragg.
“It's a whale of a project,” said Wilma Zari, who lives on the bluff overlooking the cove just south of Fort Bragg where the carcass became trapped.
The community, determined not to let the whale's death be a total waste, joined forces with fisheries officials, biology teachers and students and marine mammal rescuers to make the effort work.