Wednesday, June 1, 2016

How to Sink a Gray Whale

The time has come! we're excited to finally share with you all the Marine Mammal Stranding Network adventures we've been having here at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. You may have seen the article in the Port Townsend Leader, the article in the Peninsula Daily News, or yesterday's blog post from Katie, and it's true — we have a gray whale!

Operation Gray Whale began when we received word that NOAA and Cascadia Research Collective had found the gray whale, and needed a spot to tow it for a necropsy. NOAA also wanted to confirm with us that we were definitely interested in the skeleton, as that influenced the final locale of the whale. We decided that yes, this would be an incredible opportunity, and we were able to secure a spot at Naval Magazine Indian Island.

And thus began a super-impressive, rarely-seen whirlwind of individuals, groups, and organizations coming together to accomplish an incredible feat in a short amount of time. Betsy Carlson, our new Citizen Science Coordinator, exuberantly took the reins to develop, coordinate, and oversee this operation.

Google searches of "how to sink a whale" filled our internet histories, and by Tuesday night, less than a week from the original call, the plan was set for Wednesday morning. A team of 20 Marine Science center staff, AmeriCorps, and volunteers were at the ready. It would be an exciting day!

Having only observed small animal necropsies (such as a harbor porpoise), I was excited and nervous to participate. The smells of decaying marine mammals are some of the worst I've experienced; I couldn't imagine what it would be like emanating all around me from such a large mass. Would I toss my cookies? (I ate a light breakfast that day.) Would I pass out? (is blubber a good cushion?) Would I stand strong in front of the tough Navy guys? It turns out I didn't have a thing to worry about. I did not toss my cookies or pass out, and I stood strong in front of those tough Navy guys. In fact, they were incredibly impressed that out of the 17 participants working on the whale, only four were male. Go, women power!

I wasn't actually doing the cutting and filleting (huge kudos to Team Whale!), but I had the important task of photo-documenting the process. I had my camera in hand doing macros of the baleen, of the fine layer of hair visible on the whale's skin, and of the fine capillaries and blood vessels.

I also captured the faces of those working on the whale — faces of disgust (this whale was stinky!) and faces of utter exhaustion. Sometimes I traded my camera for a shovel, and got to help bury the whale's intestines. How often does one get to respond with "I buried whale intestines" when asked what they did that day? I consider myself lucky.

Overall, it took 8.5 hours to execute the operation — from preparing ourselves in white Tyvek suits and dabbing essential oils under our noses to removing the viscera, baleen, pectoral fins, and scapula, wrapping the whale in a burrito of Spectra netting, and anchoring it to the sea floor with the help of a support boat.

Reflecting on this experience, I am truly in awe of what we all accomplished that day. With a crunched timeline, there were many things that could have gone wrong, but everything aligned in perfect order. Tensions were non-existent as everyone pulled together in what I can only describe as a dance. A bloody, gory, and smelly dance, yes, but a beautiful, synchronized dance where everyone had their part to play and executed it perfectly.

Furthermore, the amount of generosity and support pouring out from the community through in-kind donations, volunteer time, and more, is humbling. Thank you, to all, for your hard work, dedication, and unwavering enthusiasm for dead things!

And of course, thank you for your pursuit and support of marine science education. This gray whale represents a new chapter of citizen science projects, educational opportunities for our students, and incredible exhibit content for us at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. We can't wait to see what comes next!

AMY JOHNSON is the Volunteer Coordinator at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.

Don't forget to join us this Saturday, June 4, at 9 am for a guided low tide walk! We're expecting to have great weather, so if you haven't ever participated in one of PTMSC's low tide walks, this would be a great weekend to grab your brand-new PTMSC hat and come out to explore!

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