Museum undertakes whale of a project

North America’s largest collection of marine mammal bones is about to get even bigger. The Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is getting a Humpback Whale skeleton.

UA Museum of the North (Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska)
UA Museum of the North (Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska)

Museum of the North mammal curator Link Olson said the skeleton was salvaged from a humpback that beached near Kincaid Park in Anchorage this summer.

”To my knowledge, this is the first time a humpback whale has beached, so it presented an almost once in a lifetime opportunity to obtain an intact humpback whale skeleton and skull from the road system,” Olson said.

Olson said the recovery, which the Museum has worked in conjunction with several agencies and organizations had its challenges.

”For people who have been near a dead marine mammal, they’ll tell you there’s really no smell on Earth that compares to it,” Olson said. “And it really permeates your clothes, your equipment. It’s not something you want to where your brand new Xtra-Tuffs to.”

Olson said the whale carcass was at the base of a steep bluff, making recovery of the heaviest bones difficult.

”In order to get the skull and the lower jaw and some of the other skeletal elements, we’ve had to contract with a helicopter company to sling them out and onto a flatbed truck,” Olson said.

Once safely delivered to UAF the whale bones will be buried in sand for natural cleaning.

”Put the bones out and cover them up with about 10 cubic yards of sand, and let the microbes that are present in the environment go ahead and finish cleaning them,” Olson said.

Olsen said the bones will be carefully catalogued and initially placed into storage at the museum.

”At some point, we’d like to have in articulated and suspended from the ceiling or at the ground level at the museum,” Olson said.

The Humpback joins Bowhead and Beluga whale skeletons in the museum’s collection. Olsen notes that the Museum of North’s marine mammal collection is bigger than all others in North America combined.

Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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