Whale Project Update – Whale Baleen Prep


Another small step forward in our Grey Whale Project! BTW – have you sponsored a bone yet?  A photo essay on our student and volunteer preparation of a baleen rack from the Beecher Bay Grey Whale.Background

Baleen whales are known for their plates of Baleen which are made from keratin (same as your fingernails or hair!) that act as big seives and allow them to strain small feed like krill, shrimp or small fish from the water for food.  Large racks of baleen like bristles hang from their upper jaw and a large muscular tongue is used to force water out leaving behind food items.

The anatomy of  a Grey whale is shown in this video.  Grey whales also are very unique in that they specialize in digging in the mud for shrimps, worms and other critters.  See the video below.  Interestingly, they are almost always right handed meaning that when they dive down they scoop mud on their right side and older whales can sometimes be blind int he right eye from contact with the sea bottom,

Check out a video of Grey Whale feeding here.  (Note this wants to go to a new page so you will have to use the back button until we sort this out)

ARKive video - Gray whale feeding at seabed

And that brings us to our whale.  When the whale was beached in Beecher Bay it was laying on its right side and many individual plates of the left side baleen where cut off as souvenirs, one of the disrespectful things that angered the Scia’new First Nation about how the carcass was being treated.

Original Beaching
The whale shortly after coming ashore (Photo credit – Sooke News Mirror)
Baleen Extraction April 2010
When we arrived on the Friday,many individual baleen plates had been incompletely removed by onlookers.  Note the whale specific barnacle species attached to the skin of the whale.
Baleen Extraction April 2010
When we rolled the whale over with the excavator prior to final burial we realized that the right hand (probable feeding side) baleen rack was still intact and that there might be an opportunity to salvage it for exhibition and teaching.  Of course, I had spent the entire afternoon prior getting expert advice on how to prep for the skeleton (thanks Graeme Ellis) and never once asked anyone what to do with baleen!  In the photo above, in which the carcass is upside down, we are using the excavator bucket to gently pull the jaw apart as much as we dared. You can see the rack of baleen sitting in the upper jaw and the massive tongue within the mouth.
After some wrestling (remembering that this was now pretty smelly) I was able to separate the baleen from the gums of the jaw were it is embedded not unlike a large denture growing out of the base of the jaw in one piece. Not wanting to break any bones with the excavator I reached in with a “Star-Frit” kitchen knife I had “borrowed” from the Fisheries and Aquaculture lab about 0600 that morning and was able to cut the baleen free in one piece!
Baleen Extraction April 2010
Unfortunately there was still about a foot of baleen still deep inside the mouth (see upper right). This is the most complete piece of baleen I have now seen and it includes 126 individual plates.  Grey Whales can have up to 180 increasing as they get older.

Not having a plan, it got put directly into a lab freezer, mud and all where it has greeted unsuspecting students for the last four years. During that time we have been searching for a method to properly prepare the rack for display.  This spring we drafted Dr. Ken Magnus as our lead volunteer for this project and he set out to find a solution and he did, tracking down a mention of a preparation at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium in California by biologist Vicki Wawerchak .   Jose Bacallao Jr. the Operations Manager for the aquarium graciously forwarded photos, notes and excerpts from their own preparation of two baleen pieces.   We are extremely grateful to Jose and the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium for sharing and we hope that this photo essay may help some other project else in turn.  What we have done to date follows their procedure, but if it does not work is not going to be their fault, because theirs looks good!

First we soaked the whole rack it for three days in fresh water, this allowed the now slightly freeze dried keratin to reabsorb water and get really flexible. Each day we drained it down gave it a gentle rinse. Fish/Aqua student Adrienne, did a great job on the second to last day of gently rinsing all the mud out of the baleen that had accumulated during the dragging up the beach and it started to look natural again.

The baleen was transferred to a shallow tray and Ken with volunteer students Kayla Toppings and Gillian MacDonald set to meticulously cleaning the assembly. This brought on much attention and general science geekery from staff and visitors as this is such an incredibly cool structure.
Side note: Gillian (above) and Kayla represent just how great the students in our RMOT program are (prospective employers take note) – but together they could also be a standup comedy team…
Which is good – because they spent hours very gently cleaning each piece of the keratin fibres. As it got cleaner and the individual strands now pliable, straightened out, the elegance of this structure became more and more evident.
A cross sectional view of the proximal end where it had been cut free of the jaw.  You can bet that is probably a unique test of a Star-Frit knife…..
For the next phase, the baleen rack was carefully transferred over to a rack assembly that we had built out wire mesh oyster trays and some leftover plastic 2×4’s – high tech indeed.
This bit is important, we have it off the table so that we can get airflow moving around it, we propped it up with some plastic shims so that hopefully we will achieve the natural curve of the jaw as it dries. The plastic wood was joined to form angles that could then be clamped along the tapering length of the baleen rack.  This will be necessary to keep it in position as it dries out and the keratin hardens into a permanent shape.
Next the crew cut individual sections of plastic sign board (Coroplast) to go between each plate of the baleen to hold it upright and keep it separate while it dried. That meant very carefully combing out all the baleen fibres so that the plastic sections could go between (x 126 plates). The sections were placed so that there was also room for air to pass along the base of the plates. We now have a fan blowing across the assembly as well.
Almost done
Once all the plastic spacers were installed the whole assembly was trussed up with twine to impart more stability and the crew was done (for now). According to Jose we should know wait six months for the whole drying process to occur. We are two weeks in and so far so good everything appears to be drying out nicely without too much twisting or shrinkage.  We’ll update when we finally get up the nerve to disassemble the assembly.  The Keratin can be affected by UV so we wont be able to put it back in the jaw as some have suggested, but our hope is to hang it in a case near the articulated skeleton and have it add to the educational story this exhibit will be able to tell.

This is just one small part of this ambitious project. It is our intent to continue to document the process as we go along and to provide many more volunteer opportunities. Right now we really need your help to Raise this Whale. Please consider supporting this project by sponsoring a bone or making any other donation. You can make your tax deductible donation online here.


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