by Lindsay Townsend

The whale skull, arriving at DMNH in September.

Last month, staff from the Delaware Museum of Natural History brought the 280 lbs. skull of a juvenile humpback whale, as well as several other pieces of the skeleton, to the Museum for future exhibit and educational use. The bones were all that remained of a young humpback whale that died at sea and washed ashore in April 2017 at Port Mahon, DE. Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control moved the corpse to coastal state land near Pickering Beach, where it could decompose undisturbed.

Learn more about how DMNH staff moved the whale skull to the Museum from the Delaware State News, Delawareonline and Delmarva Now, WBOC, WDEL, and Delaware Public Media.

For the past year and a half, the staff at the Delaware Museum of Natural History kept an eye on the whale, secured permits, and starting in June began bringing a portion of the skeleton back to the Museum as new addition to the exhibit collection. Bringing a piece of this size to the Museum is a task with equally large challenges, which many of the staff never imagined they would undertake. Back in June, when some of the smaller pieces were extracted, the whale’s bones looked like a toppled Jenga tower, played with giant pieces of driftwood.

Museum Director of Collections and Bird Curator Jean Woods was among the first from the Museum to see the whale in May 2017. Because she was participating in the Delaware Shorebird Project, which the state organizes every spring, she was close by Pickering Beach when the whale was moved nearby there.

When she told others at the Museum about it, Mollusk Curator Liz Shea thought the whale could bring an interesting Delaware story to DMNH.

But deciding to bring the whale to the Museum raised a series of questions. How would the staff move a several hundred pound skull? How would they clean the bones? And how would the bones be exhibited?

“We have learned that whale bones can leak oils for many, many years,” says Shea. “So we need to do what we can to minimize that.”

While Museum staff had experience cleaning and treating bird bones, none of them had worked with a whale skeleton before. To help make these challenges more manageable the staff decided to only obtain a portion of the skeleton instead of the whole thing. The bones they chose included the skull, the right jawbone, vertebrae from three different sections of the spine, and several pieces from the flipper. Shea says they chose pieces that could be used for education and that would captivate visitors.

The Logistics of Moving a Whale

Because the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act federally protects whales, in order to bring the bones to the Museum, the staff had to obtain a permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“We are holding the bones in trust for the public,” says Shea. “If we decide in the future not to interpret them or to not do whale programming, then we have to give them back. They go back to NOAA.”

Most of the whale’s vertebrae the staff wanted were easy for them to obtain because these bones hadn’t sunk very deep into the sand near Pickering Beach over the course of the year. However, in order to obtain the skull the staff would need to leverage it out of the sand. How much flesh would still be attached to underside of the skull when they did so was something Shea says they couldn’t predict.

Museum Maintenance Director Chris Hayden (at right) developed a system to pump water from the Delaware Bay to clean the whale skull.

Over the course of many weeks and multiple site visits, the staff developed a plan to move the skull, including wedging pieces of wood under the skull to lift it out of the sand and onto its side. Then, they used a pressure washer powered by a generator to wash the skull’s underside before moving it to a clean location on the beach where it could finish decaying.

Chris Hayden, the Museum’s Director of Maintenance and the key architect behind the plan to move the skull, set up a pump system to draw water from the Delaware Bay into a filtration system to supply the pressure washer. Once the skull was free of the sand and clean, the staff and two volunteers—Dave Hald and Matt McGraw—carried it across the beach to a wood palette where the skull sat while waiting to be finally moved to the Museum. In early September, the skull moved during a storm, but fortunately was still in the area when Hayden went to inspect it a week before the final extraction.

At 8 by 11 feet, the skull was too large to fit in an ordinary pickup truck. To bring it the sixty miles to the Museum, Hayden and his team moved the skull onto a flat trailer pulled by a truck. On the way north, the team stopped at the Cartanza Grain Elevator to weigh the skull, which was 280 lbs., not counting the jawbones.

The skull was weighed at the Cartanza Grain Elevator in Dover. It’s way too big to go on any scale we have at DMNH!

The smaller bones, such as the vertebrae, are currently stored in freezers. “These bones, because they’ve been outside, can have any insect in them,” says Woods. “So we can’t bring them into the Museum yet because we would potentially have those insects inside the building where they could eat the collection or exhibits.” Putting the bones in a freezer helps kill these insects. Some bones may go into the Museum’s bug room, which contains a colony of dermestid beetles, an insect scavenger that eats dead things, which help finish decomposition. “Museums around the world have harvested this beetle, and we keep a colony of them to clean skeletons for us,” says Woods.  The beetles will remove any final bits of flesh remaining on the whale’s bones before they are placed in the freezers.

The jawbone and skull are too large to fit in either the freezers or the bug room, so the Museum will need to develop an alternate plan to clean them, says Shea.

Telling a Whale’s Story…and a Delaware Story

Bringing the whale to the Museum involves more than just physically transporting it to its new home.  When the whale goes on exhibit, Museum staff will provide interpretation to help visitors connect with the whale’s story.

“My hope is that we can have a story to go with the whale,” says Helen Bilinski, the Museum’s Director of Exhibits. The Museum’s humpback whale was one of five that washed ashore in Delaware between 2016 and 2017. Understanding how it died is one place for the staff to start in uncovering the whale’s story. Shea says they’ve requested the whale’s autopsy from the Marine Education, Research, and Rehabilitation Institute (MERR), who attended to the whale when it washed ashore.

Shortly after the whale was found, NOAA declared that an “unusual mortality event” had occurred for humpback whales near the Atlantic coast. The designation was prompted because starting in 2016 an abnormal number of them had washed up dead along the United States’ east coast.

When NOAA designates an “unusual mortality event,” they organize a group of outside scientists to help NOAA’s Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events research the cause for the event. The Atlantic humpback whale study, which started last year, is still ongoing.

Beyond a closer look at these deaths, Bilinksi says the whale can also tell a story of “life happening off the coast of Delaware that few people know about.” Most people she says associate New England with whales not Delaware.

Populations of humpback whales from Maine and Canada pass offshore the entire east coast as they migrate to the West Indies to breed and give birth and back north to feed. However, in a 2002 study published in the Journal of Cetacean Research and Management, a group of scientists suggested that the Mid-Atlantic could also act as an additional feeding ground for humpback whales.

The Museum staff hopes the whale will help them better tell the story of Delaware’s coastal waterways. “The estuary we live on—the Delaware Bay—is a really important estuary,” says Shea. “The land masses we all live on are a third of what the world has to offer. So there’s a lot out there in the oceans we need to be talking about.”