Kodiak Gray Whale Project - Kodiak, Alaska


Acknowledgements About Gray Whales Phase IV - Bone Cleaning Phase III - Full Excavation of the Skeleton Phase II - Test Pit Phase I - Burial Introduction Museum Tour Bruce Nelson KNWR Building Bone Restoration and Rearticulation Move to KFRC

For more information
Contact Project Coordinator
Stacy Studebaker
at tidepoolak@ak.net
or 907-486-6498

 


October 2006 -
Bone Restoration and Rearticulation Begins

Lee Post, whale skeleton expert, arrived in Kodiak by ferry from his home in Homer with his truck full of tools and supplies to begin the bone restoration and rearticulation of the Kodiak Gray Whale skeleton. Lee is no stranger to Kodiak. Not only was he born here, he has returned in recent times to rearticulate a Cuvier's Beaked Whale skeleton that hangs in the foyer of the Kodiak Research Center, and a Dall's Porpoise skeleton on display at the Kodiak State Parks visitor center at Fort Abercrombie State Park.

Under Lee's instruction, Stacy and a small group of dedicated volunteers begin repairing some of the broken and cracked bones that were damaged when the whale was buried in 2000 and excavated in 2004. With some Water Putty, Epoxy and a little paint, the bones soon looked as good as new.

     

Using the architectural plans, Lee built a scale model of the room in the new visitor center where the whale skeleton will be displayed. He also made a scale model of the whale to hang in the model of the building. Although most of the details had already been worked out with the architects, Lee and Stacy wanted to make sure the whale would fit and decide on the best pose for the space. A graceful S-curve will work best.


The bones of both flippers were rearticulated with metal rods and epoxy. Getting all the small bones in the right positions with the proper spacing is a challenge but Lee had drawings from the flipper of another gray whale that we used as our guide. We drew a grid for each flipper on large sheets of paper taped to the tops of plywood tables. This allowed us to place the bones in the correct positions before we pinned them together.

Once the flipper bones were drilled, pinned, and glued together, we used clear silicon caulking to replace the cartilage and cover up the metal. This will also be done between the vertebrae when the spine is rearticulated.

All the vertebrae were lined up, numbered, and measured so we could determine their precise spacing.

February 2007 -
Rearticulation Continues


Lee Post returned to Kodiak for another work session on the Kodiak Gray Whale skeleton. In the interim since Lee's last visit, local metal expert and welder Stanley Wolrich built a heavy duty12-foot long steel cart to support the main part of the skeleton while it was being rearticulated. The cart was built on wheels so that the skeleton could be moved onto a flat bed trailer and into the new visitor center when completed. When Lee arrived, the cart was ready to go for the next phase of the skeleton reconstruction.

The team worked for two weeks straight and watched the whale skeleton materialize, bone by bone.

First, a metal support structure for the skeleton had to be made. The main component consisted of a 21 foot long steel pipe that would be threaded through the centers of all the vertebrae. It had to be bent into a graceful "S" curve so that the position of the whale's body would have a dynamic and lifelike pose. This is harder to do but preferable to a straight rod running through the spine that results in a static and stiff pose. After drawing out the curve on the floor, Stanley and his crew bent the pipe with a pipe bender. It was a tough job, but they made it look easy.

The bent pipe was then placed on the cart and ready for the vertebrae.

We then had to find a drill press to drill the holes through the centers of the vertebrae and not just any drill press would do. We had to find one big enough to accommodate the size of the largest vertebrae, and one that would slow down to 80 - 100 rpms. The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge had one that met our specifications, so we transported all the bones to the drill press and spent a day drilling the 2' diameter holes through the largest of the vertebrae. The smaller neck and tail vertebrae would be done with a hand drill.

Once the vertebrae were drilled, we began threading them onto the pipe and spacing them. Another smaller metal rod of all-thread was inserted through each vertebra below the main pipe to stabilize the bones and allow us to lock them in place with nuts and washers.

The 8-foot tail section was constructed separately on a smaller pipe that tapered into all- tread at the very end since the last few vertebrae are quite small. The tail section will fit into the main pipe and lock into place.

Spacing the vertebrae properly is very important so as to achieve the original length of the whale, which in our case, was about 37'. On a live whale, the vertebrae are held together and spaced with cartilage that is a strong, flexible material. Once we got the bones locked into place in their proper positions, we filled the space and covered up the hardware with layers and layers of clear silicon caulking which looks and acts almost like the real thing when dry. Each layer of silicon has to dry 24 hours before the next one can be applied. Anyone who has caulked a window or sink knows how impossibly sticky the stuff is. The trick to getting it on smoothly is dipping your fingers in clear bubble-blowing soap.

    

The chevrons were then attached to the undersides of the caudal vertebrae with all-thread pins that were glued into place. Animals with active tails like porcupines, beavers and whales require more specialized muscles to operate them. The tail muscles help to produce the downward motions and attach to special v-shaped bones called chevrons that are located under the tail vertebrae.

The skeleton is being rearticulated in 5 main sections so that it can be transported more easily and fit through the doors of the new visitor center, about a half-mile away. When the new building is completed in September, the whale skeleton sections will be moved in one by one. The main body and the skull will be wheeled in on their own carts, the 8-foot tail section, the two flippers and the ribs will all be carried in separately. Once all inside, they will be assembled for the first time and hung up in their permanent location from the ceiling of the second story as a complete and magnificent gray whale skeleton for all to admire.


April 2007 -
More Bone Work!


Lee Post arrived for our final 2-week, marathon bone blitz. Each time he came to Kodiak he rode the ferry from Homer and brought his truck full of tools and materials. During this time period, master welder Stan Wolrich helped us design and fabricate more custom metal parts for the skeletal support system. Each whale is different so each support system, involving many metal pieces, has to be custom made.

Since we had the ribs already placed and positioned with our wooden spacers, we started with the design and fabrication of the metal rib cage support. We bent strips of metal that fit inside the ribs and welded them to 2 metal rods that were welded to two metal bars attached to the spinal pipe between the vertebrae.

After the rib cage frame was made and installed, we primed and painted it a nice gray color. Then we attached the ribs to it with bolts. The ribs were also pinned into their respective vertebrae. Since the body with the ribs is too wide to squeeze through the doors of the new visitor center, we planned the rib attachment so that we could easily remove and replace them when the time came to move the skeleton into the new building.

The correct placement of the scapulas was the next challenge. Once bolted in place to the ribs, we could then decide on the position of the flippers. First we attached the humerus of each flipper to its corresponding socket on the scapula. Each flipper has its own metal bracket that will attach to a cable running up to the ceiling. That way we have more flexibility in choosing the best position for each one once the skeleton is suspended from the ceiling in the new building.

Next we focused on the skull, which weighs about 250 pounds and the jaws, about 80 pounds each. We planned to hang the skull and jaws as one unit from 3 places. Two huge eyebolts were screwed into the sides at the base of the skull, epoxied, and bolted in place from inside the cranium. Cables attached to the eyebolts will be joined at the top of the skull and extend to the ceiling as one.

The seven cervical vertebrae were attached to the base of the skull with another steel pipe that will slide into the 2" body pipe and be bolted into place.

We then had to figure out how to attach the huge, 80-pound jaws to their sockets. One large eyebolt was screwed into each socket and another to the end of each jaw. Where they overlapped, we bolted them together. This allows some space in the joint as well as some movement while we fiddled around with the rest of the skull support apparatus.

One of the greatest challenges of this part of the project was figuring out how to support the jaws adequately in the correct position so that we could support both of them and the heavy, central part of the skull while suspending them from the ceiling. To figure out the right design, we first needed to turn the skull over so we could work on it. While upside down, we also figured out the position of the 2 ear bones and the 3 hyoid bones.

Given the earthquake history of our area, we were always thinking of worst-case scenarios, which in my mind was a big enough quake to shake the building and get the skeleton swinging! We had to design all the support apparatus with this in mind so that all the bones would stay together in such an event, sway minimally as one unit and not fall on anybody! We could have designed something really strong and really ugly but we rose to the challenge of figuring out how to accomplish this with the least amount of metal showing. Our final solution involved two fabricated pieces that were held together with one huge custom-made eyebolt that runs upward through the blowholes.

Our last concern was stabilizing the bones of the rostrum so we used epoxy and at the tip, we also bolted them together and attached a small eyebolt where the cable will be attached.

By April 14th, we completed all the bone work we could do until the new visitor center was finished in September. At that time, we'll move the pieces of the skeleton in, put them together and hang the entire skeleton from the ceiling.

Meanwhile, the next phase of the Kodiak Gray Whale Project kicked in - Bare Bones Education. Stacy gave educational tours to many school children and various other groups. All were awed and some greatly inspired by the enormous size of the whale.