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Reassembling bones of 3 wayward killer whales in Southwest Alaska

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
Orcas stuck in the Nushagak River in Southwest Alaska in 2011. NOAA photo courtesy Jon Sharp

In a recent weekend workshop in Dillingham, volunteers worked with an expert bone articulator to begin the never-before-attempted task of cleaning and assembling a fetal whale skeleton. In October 2011, the world watched in curiosity and concern when three killer whales were stranded up the Nushagak River near Dillingham. It was never clear what brought the whales so far from their usual haunts, but all three perished after being lost for several weeks in fresh water.

A year and a half later, experts and citizen scientists are beginning to reassemble what remains. A team of Dillingham volunteers surfaced early on, hoping to find a way to turn the whales’ untimely demise into a chance for learning and community teamwork.

Of the three whales -- two adult females and a juvenile -- one adult female and the nearly full-term fetus she was carrying, were salvaged by a local group. The adult was cut up and stored near the dock to decay, while the fetus was frozen at a Dillingham school.

“The goal is to articulate the female, and put the fetus back in her, and then hang her in the school somewhere,” said Kim Williams, one of the project leaders. 

While that goal seems fairly far off now, it is slowly to taking shape as more locals take up specialized training and team leaders seek funding, time and space for the large task. 

Williams is a Dillingham school board member and works for Nunamta Aulukestai. Through Nunamta, the project has been able to access some funding through the tribal organization’s foundation connections.

Clint Reigh, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Dillingham campus, and Nathan Coutsoubos from the Dillingham School District have also stepped into leadership roles.

Once the initial problems of butchering and storage were figured out, the team got to move on to cleaning the bones and preparing them for assembly.

So who do you call when you have a van full of whale parts, a freezer with an orca fetus, and some big ideas?

A lot of people call Lee Post.

Post -- better known as the Bone Man in science circles -- is an Alaska resident whose natural curiosity about the working parts of the animal world led him to become one of the leading experts on animal skeleton articulation in the world.

Post has led large whale articulation projects in Homer -- his hometown -- and in several other locations across the country. He has come to Dillingham several times this spring to teach classes on putting together small mammal skeletons -- kind of a starter course for the bigger project to come.

“Reassembly of both skeletons is a little farther down the road,” Coutsoubos said in an email. “We’ve had two very successful bone-building classes at the college, and we now have a small army of skilled bone builders to help out with the orcas as time goes on.”

Recently, the team focused on the fetus -- butchering and boiling the bones to clear them of tissues.

“We got x-rays of the fetal flippers, thawed out the frozen fetal carcass, and butchered it down,” Coutsoubos said. “We found all the bones, boiled them, let them dry out and air out for a few days, and then put them back in the freezer.”

This stage of the process was particularly interesting, Post said, because, to his knowledge, it hasn’t been done before.

“This is the first (time I’ve) tried to get a skeleton out of a fetal whale,” Post said. “I’ve never even seen a fetal whale skeleton. Most museums would say, don’t even try.” Williams heard that same warning from visiting experts early on.

“I don’t think we take ‘no’ very well” Williams said. “If there’s a challenge, we just go ahead and do what we want to do.” Much of the fetal skeleton is cartilage, Post said, and some of it was partially decayed.

But despite inherent difficulties, the weekend proved to be both fruitful and encouraging. Post was surprised to see Williams get a full “hand” intact from the fetal flipper.

“It was mostly cartilage but it gave some new information about the evolution of flippers,” Post said.

It was an exciting moment for her, Williams said, accomplishing a part of their large goal, and contributing to the scientific world at the same time.

The adult whale will take yet more time and people to tackle, and her bones still require quite a lot more cleaning, Coutsoubos said.

“Butchering and bacteria and bugs have taken most of the chunks off them,” he said, “but they still need to be cleaned.  We will soak them in warm, bacteriologically active water all summer long, then most likely give them a chemical cleaning in the fall.”

It’s messy work, Coutsoubos said, and more than a little smelly. “There has been nothing in my life as gross as scooping out rotten orca brain goo from the skull on the beach,” he said.

Those organic challenges, plus the scope of the project, he said, can be overwhelming at times. But having an expert reasonably nearby is no small help.

“It is very exciting to work with Lee Post on this project,” Coutsoubos said. “Lee is the world’s expert on this kind of project. It’s awesome that he’s a fellow Alaskan, and it’s awesome that he has been so willing to help out.” 

Knowing that orcas are an intelligent, long-living species, Coutsoubos said, with strong family ties and survival instincts, it is touching to think of their life and death while working to reconstruct them.

The team hopes to ultimately turn the project into an opportunity for graduate students to study and earn credit, Williams said. 

When both whales are finally complete -- which will likely take a few years -- Williams intends to have a ceremony honoring the animals and what they’ve offered the community of students, scientists, educators and lifelong learners. She hopes a member of the Southeast Alaska clan whose totem is the killer whale will come to sing an honoring song and help welcome them permanently to Dillingham.  

Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch@reportalaska.com.