Bone by bone, a cadre of marine mammal reconstruction specialists, students and volunteers is breathing new life into a massive killer whale that washed up dead on the Mendocino Coast after becoming entangled in crab pot lines in April 2015.
Inside a former rec center next door to Fort Bragg’s City Hall, the 26-foot orca’s 41 vertebrae last week were painstakingly threaded onto an arched steel pipe suspended by cables from a wooden frame. Its ribs lay nearby, waiting to be attached with steel rods and glue. In a shower room, sparks cascaded during the crafting of a framework that will connect the cetacean’s 125-pound, 48-inch-long skull to its neck.
The skeleton is expected to be completed today.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Sheila Semans, director of the town’s nonprofit Noyo Center for Marine Science, which is overseeing the monthlong project. “He’s such a valuable skeleton,” she said.
Having an orca to display is a coup, not just for the marine center, but for Fort Bragg, a former lumber mill town with just over 7,000 residents that has been remaking itself into a tourist destination since the 2002 closure of Georgia-Pacific.
The skeleton already is attracting interest from scientists, some 50 volunteers who signed up to help with the reconstruction and people who just want to watch. One man flew from the east coast to see and touch the skeleton, Semans said.
“It’s the talk of the town,” she said. “If this is an indicator of the kind of interest people have in this kind of work, it’s going to be huge for this city.”
The idea for a marine center evolved during city and community discussions about how to diversify and revitalize the area following closure of the Georgia-Pacific mill, which for decades dominated the town’s economy and its ocean bluffs. The closure was a huge economic hit but it also opened up formerly blocked ocean views and the use of the Fort Bragg headlands. Now, a trail featuring vast ocean views along the craggy headlands is open to the public.
The marine mammal center was formally launched in 2013 with a two-year city grant for one paid staffer. The city also provided a 450-square-foot building along the headlands trail where the skeletons of two sea lions and other marine artifacts are on display. Future plans for the center include an estimated $15 million to $20 million marine center with education, research and museum complexes.
Those may be years and many fundraising efforts away, but the center already has a burgeoning specimen collection that includes multiple sea lions and a rare, 73-foot blue whale killed by a ship’s propeller that washed ashore south of Fort Bragg in 2009. That whale remains in pieces and stored in boxes until an estimated $800,000 can be raised to extract the oil from its bones and then reconstruct the mammal in a lifelike pose.
“The Noyo Center and its incredible marine mammal specimen collection is already positively impacting Fort Bragg,” by encouraging ocean conservation, exploration and education, said Fort Bragg City Manager Linda Ruffing.
Semans said the orca reconstruction is expected to cost nearly $50,000.
While the three professional skeleton articulators working on the orca are excited by the possibility of reconstructing the massive blue whale, the orca is actually a more unusual opportunity, Semans said.