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.
Entire killer whale skeletons are rarely found because they typically die out at sea and sink. There are only about a dozen on display in the entire United States, said Lee Post, also known as the “Boneman,” a renowned articulator from Homer, Alaska, and author of a series of manuals on rebuilding skeletons.
Fort Bragg’s killer whale, at some 12,000 pounds, also is unusually large, Semans said. The animal was from Alaska and passing through California waters, feeding on baby harbor seals based on the six carcasses found in his stomach, she said.
Post, along with Mike deRoos and Michi Main, a husband-and-wife team of articulators from British Columbia and founders of Cetacea Inc., are leading volunteers and students in the orca assembly project and associated workshops.
“I was super excited” to work on the orca, said Ty Freeman, a 17-year-old high school student from Puyallup, Washington who is spending the summer with his grandparents in Fort Bragg. Two years before, he helped put together the sea lions on display in the center’s museum.
The orca, largest member of the dolphin family, is expected to be displayed in Fort Bragg’s state-of-the art C.V. Starr Community Center until the marine center builds its complex.
The articulators are a rare lot in a field of work that requires skills in engineering, construction, science and art in order to accurately capture the mammal’s proportions and movements.
“These are probably three of the best articulators in the country,” Semans said.
Lee’s other projects include a killer whale in the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, which is a partner in the Noyo whale reconstruction project. DeRoos’ and Main’s work has included the blue whale in London’s Natural History Museum.
But there aren’t that many whale articulation jobs, so, despite their fame, all three have other employment as well. Post owns a bookstore and teaches; deRoos works construction and welding jobs, and Main teaches at an outdoor school.
Reconstruction work typically begins with the collection of a whale carcass, which then must be cut into manageable pieces and stripped of flesh. In the orca’s case, the carcass was placed in a “maggot motel,” a wood-framed structure protected by chicken wire from scavenger animals while the fly larva stripped the bones clean.
“I would say it was in the motel for six months,” said Richard Millis, who was in charge of the process.
The bones then were stripped of their oil by repeatedly rinsing and soaking them in dish soap, ammonia and peroxide.
As much as 40 percent of a whale’s weight is in oil, which is responsible for buoyancy, Semans said. It must be removed or the skeleton would be too stinky to display.
The blue whale is so big it will require a huge industrial-style degreaser similar to those used to clean jet engines. It uses chemicals and heat to steam the oil from the bones.
DeRoos and Main developed the device and, when the time comes, will transport it to Fort Bragg from Canada in its shipping container.
Getting the bones cleared of meat and oil is probably the biggest challenge in resurrecting dead whales, said deRoos, who engineered and built the steel supports for the skeleton. Getting to the reconstruction phase takes years of planning and dirty work.
“This is the fun part,” deRoos said.
You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 707-462-6473 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MendoReporter.