Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Gray Whale Project

The Port Townsend Marine Science Center is trying to raise $10,000 for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network by August 31 to ensure that we can continue to help stranded seal pups and other marine mammals. Donate to the Marine Mammal Stranding Network today to see your donation matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor! 

Last week we raised the dead, guiding a seine net full of gray whale bones to shore with the help of a pile of barrels, hardy swimmers, some borrowed boats, and a gaggle of great volunteers. Collectively we breathed a sigh of relief knowing that all our work and worry had paid off and this young whale could become part of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s educational programs and exhibits.

This is the story of how this gray whale got from here:

To here:

Just two and a half months ago, on May 12, 2016, a young, female gray whale (officially identified as CRC-1524) died after floating for several days in Elliot Bay, watched closely by scientists, NOAA, Marine Mammal Stranding Network observers, and even ferry boat captains. Her body was towed to Indian Island where the Navy pulled her to shore and Cascadia Research Collective conducted a necropsy.

As the Port Townsend Marine Science Center covers response for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network in eastern Jefferson County, Executive Director Janine Boire was contacted to see if we wanted to collect the whale for its skeleton. She said, “Yes!”

In six days, we planned and equipped a team to wrap and sink the 29-foot, 13,000-plus-pound whale. On May 18, the entire Marine Science Center staff, AmeriCorps members, and volunteers prepped and wrapped the whale in re-purposed Spectra salmon netting donated by a local fisherman. The whale's pectoral fins and baleen were removed before wrapping. She was then towed off shore where her body would be naturally decomposed by benthic organisms, keeping the nutrients in the Salish Sea.

It took only 11 weeks underwater for most of the blubber and other soft tissue to be eaten — much faster than we'd imagined! Every two weeks we visited and filmed the “burrito” as she was fondly referred to during the net-wrapping process. Our collection of muddy water videos allowed us to monitor the decomposition rate and check on lines and anchors.

By the end of July, the bones were ready to pull. There is a fine time balance between removing the tissue and keeping the bones. We had to to get the bones out of the water before the polychaete worms and organisms started to dissolve the bones themselves. Now we just needed to lift a few tons of bones up off the bay floor and onto dry land without a crane or lift!

Gray whale bone retrieval took two days — one day to float the whale by adding flotation at a morning low tide, then towing it to shore on the evening high tide, and one day to scrub, label, and move the bones to a greenhouse to dry.

Using the tides to our advantage, an ingenious volunteer built sufficient flotation to lift the bones using plastic barrels and a surplus helicopter cargo net. We swam the barrels out at a minus tide with assistance from a volunteer boat pilot. Our swimmers tied them on underwater, mostly to the head — the heaviest part. Then we waited for the evening high tide. It worked!

Once ashore, the water subsided leaving a pile of netting, seaweed, crabs, and what was left of a graceful gray whale. Most of the lumbar and caudal (tail) vertebrae were still together, which made identification and inventory easier, but the middle was a jumble of ribs and thoracic and cervical vertebra all covered with a fine layer of barnacles.

The bone-recovery team took over, setting up a trash pump for washing bones and cutting away the lines and netting. Several crabs tangled in the net were rescued as well. Bones were numbered and identified by marine veterinarian Dr. Pete Schroeder along with other experienced volunteers. Scraping barnacles off the surface of the bones took the most time, but the bones cleaned up well.

Clean bones were loaded into empty flotation barrels and pick-up trucks. Since we were on Indian Island Naval Magazine property, Navy security required that all of our whale crew and vehicles pass security screening. We had an escort with us at all times and needed to come and go as a big group.

Bones packed, boat ramp washed, and all volunteers accounted for, we headed over to Marrowstone Island and the backyard greenhouse of a dear friend who graciously lent us the space to dry the bones.

This was truly a team effort from necropsy to drying the bones. There will be more opportunities to get involved as we clean, repair, number, and articulate the bones to display the skeleton. Thanks to everyone involved.

Photos 1 courtesy of NOAA | Photo 2 & 4-9 by Marine Science Center | Photo 3 & 10-12 by Wendy Feltham

BETSY CARLSON is the Citizen Science Coordinator at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. Check out our citizen science projects and learn how to get involved.

In the past, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network Hotline and training for the team of Marine Science Center volunteer responders has been funded by a highly competitive grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Unfortunately, funds are very limited and this year our grant was not renewed. We urgently need your help to protect the future of our marine mammals in the Salish Sea. Please donate today to help us raise $10,000 for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network by August 31.


  1. Thank you for coordinating everything so beautifully, Betsy! It's just amazing to learn about this entire process. The expertise of staff and volunteers was really exciting to observe.

  2. Great job! I was involved when the first Gray Whale "Spirit" washed up on shore. It was in a rather remote area so we were able to let it decompose on the beach. You had a much more complex job. Were you able to get both hip bones?

    1. We were! We got both. I tried to attach a photo here, but we've got them both tagged in the greenhouse!

  3. Great story! Thanks for putting it photos and all together for those of us who only knew parts of it.


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