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Four years after she was struck dead by a ship's propeller, cut into pieces and buried in the forest, a blue whale has resurfaced in Fort Bragg.

The unearthed skeleton of the whale, a female in its mid-20s, briefly was reassembled last week during a practice run that allowed its bones to be weighed and labeled.

"It's this amazing puzzle," said Sheila Semans, coordinator of the Noyo Center for Science and Education. The fledgling center will someday house the behemoth, which was 73-feet long and weighed about 70 tons.

Blue whales, believed to be the largest animal to ever live on earth, can grow to more than 100 feet and exceed 170 tons. Their hearts are the size of a small car and their arteries large enough for a human baby to crawl through, according to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Canada, home to one of the few blue whale skeletons on public display. There currently are fewer than 10 such skeletons in North America.

It took two volunteers to carefully lift one of the Fort Bragg whale's 85-pound lumbar vertebra into place.

In contrast, the whale's last tail vertebra is about the size of a golf ball and its smallest fin bone is the size of a human finger.

By the end of the week, the whale's 175 bones were placed back inside their temporary home in a warehouse at Fort Bragg's wastewater treatment plant, which sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean not far from where the whale met its untimely death.

It was Oct. 19, 2009 when the whale surfaced under the propeller blades of a research ship hired to conduct ocean floor surveys by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency charged with protecting whales.

The ocean swept the massive corpse into a cove south of Fort Bragg. Dozens of scientists, students and volunteers bent on salvaging the skeleton and other parts for science and education converged on site to slice it into manageable pieces so it could be hauled up the cliff. The carcass was then trucked to the forest burial site, where it remained for nearly four years as flesh-eating microorganisms worked at cleaning the bones.

The extent of the damage caused by the boat propeller can be seen on the whale's spine. Three of its 17 lumbar vertebra were cut or crushed in the accident.

While microorganisms in the soil stripped most of the tissue from the bones, it clung stubbornly to some. On Wednesday, Semans and volunteers used knives and a power washer to try to remove the remaining flesh. But it proved difficult. Semans said some of the bones may be reburied for a while longer.

Since its demise, the whale has inspired people to volunteer for physically challenging and stinky chores. Among them last week were several current and former marine biology students from College of the Redwoods, a high school student from Ukiah and a veterinarian from Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

"Whales are charismatic," said the veterinarian, Paul Nader, who flew across the country to help out for a few days. He's worked on 15 whale species but this was his first blue whale.

"It's exciting for me," he said.

The volunteer marine biology students and former students were happy to have his expertise and assistance categorizing and labeling bones.

But the project will need more than volunteers. Before the bones are assembled for public viewing, they'll need to be spotless and have the natural oil removed.

Getting oil, which provides buoyancy, out of whale bones isn't easy. It requires that they be placed in huge vats with heated chemical solutions that steam out the oil.

If the oil is not removed, the odor will preclude displaying the boned indoors, Semans said. If left outside, the skeleton will deteriorate, a problem that has plagued other displays.

The cost of preparation and mounting is expected to be about $500,000, said Fort Bragg City Manager Linda Ruffing. The building in which it will be housed is expected to cost $1 million, she said. It will be located on 12 acres the city owns on the former Georgia-Pacific mill site.

Semans is in charge of finding the money for the project, which eventually will become part of a nonprofit agency.

The completion and final cost of the project depend, in part, on how the blue whale skeleton will be displayed. Semans would love for it to be suspended with moving joints. Ruffing likes the less expensive idea of keeping the whale at ground level and letting people step inside the belly of the whale.

Neither is cheap.

"We have a lot of fundraising to do," Ruffing said.

<em>You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com.</em>