Dead whale to get second life in a Delaware museum

Members and volunteers with the Delaware Natural History Museum carry a humpback whale skull off Pickering Beach on Friday. The bone comes from a whale that was found dead on Port Mahon in 2017. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

PICKERING BEACH — Last Friday, the saga of a once 30-foot, 20-ton juvenile humpback whale that was found dead on Port Mahon last year finally took a happy turn. Portions of the whale’s skeleton — including its 280-pound skull with twin 9-foot jawbones — were carefully collected and transported by Delaware Museum of Natural History staff, destined to eventually become an exhibit at their Wilmington campus.

Last year, this paper reported that the large whale carcass was first addressed by the Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation Institute when it was spotted by locals in late-April 2017 at Port Mahon just outside Little Creek. MERR is a non-profit “stranding” response and rehabilitation organization responsible for conservation of marine mammals and sea turtles.

After doing their best to identify the whale and catalog vital information, MERR worked with DNREC to try to remove it, but Port Mahon’s series of pylons and jagged rocky shoreline made it difficult. Eventually, with the help of a few tide cycles, the whale carcass was able to be towed by boat away from the fishing piers and deposited further south, near the Little Creek Wildlife Area, butting up to Pickering Beach. Officials hoped that “nature could take its course” at the remote location and the carcass would decay without causing odor issues. However, the whale’s story was far from over.

Laborious process

Shortly after the whale was moved, the museum staff caught wind of it. Delaware Museum of Natural History spokeswoman Jennifer Acord said the museum’s curators decided to approach DNREC about the possibility of salvaging the whale’s remains.

“They liked the idea, but pointed us to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) because we’d need to apply for a permit to collect the remains,” she said. “Because humpback whales are a protected marine animal, it was important to get the appropriate paperwork. So, we explained our plans for educational use and they were approved.”

Dr. Jean Woods with the Delaware Natural History Museum inspects vertebrae from a whale. ((Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Sitting in the sand for over a year, much of the carcass has decayed or been scavenged by animals and bugs (and possibly illicit souvenir hunters), but the bones were far from picked entirely clean. Over several preparatory trips, the museum staff selected which pieces of the skeleton they planned to use, elevated them on pallets (so the undersides could dry) and devised a plan to remove the large skull. Still laden with flesh, the team even needed to rig up a generator, pump and pressure washer on the remote beach to clean the skull before moving it.

Last Friday, the team put its plan into action, hauling the skull on a sheet of plywood topped with high density foam for the bumpy truck ride down a rough access road. Though the museum safely collected, weighed and cataloged the skeleton, Ms. Acord says they must now meticulously clean and prepare the bones before displaying them.

“We’ve been doing a lot of research on how other museums handled whale skeletons,” she said. “Since whales are marine mammals, their bones are unique in how much oil they have in them — we read about one whale display that’s been dripping oil in a museum for years — we’re hoping to avoid that. There’s also still small amounts of flesh on the bones and bugs and critters that may still be inside them that we’ll need to deal with.”

For this purpose, the museum uses tricks like freezing/thawing cycles, chemical treatments and a hermetically sealed “bug room.”

“We have a room, separate from the museum, that has flesh-eating dermestid beetles in it that help us finish the job naturally,” said Ms. Acord. “It’s a strategy that natural history museums around the county use all the time and it’s been around for quite awhile because it’s effective.”

Once fully prepped — a process that could take years — Ms. Acord says the bones will be displayed in one of the public areas of the museum.

Some scattered bones remain at the section of shoreline a short walk north of the Pickering Beach community. Though it’s open to the public, taking the bones without permission may actually constitute a federal crime, according to NOAA.

A Delaware story

Particularly excited about the project, museum director Halsey Spruance said the exhibit will be a great way for Delawareans to look the state’s natural history in the eyes.

“This is a bit of a new frontier for the museum,” he said. “We’re very good at looking into the past, but this is really our first foray into tying that into how our natural history affects Delawareans personally. This is a great way to make use of something educationally that might have gone to waste as well.”

Ms. Acord says the team will start assembling an “interpretation” to appear alongside the bones for the eventual exhibit.

“When we build the exhibit, we’ll be looking back at previous articles, photos and accounts to sort of help tell the story,” she said.

In context, the original stranding last year came at a rather ignominious time for the East Coast’s humpback whale population. Days after the sighting, NOAA declared an “unusual mortality event” for humpback whales from Maine to North Carolina.

The death toll leading to the declaration had risen to 41 whales from Jan. 2016 to April 2017. Of those, 10 of the 20 closely investigated bodies had evidence of boat interactions. Historically, only 1.4 whales die per year in the same geographical range due to boat strikes. The Port Mahon humpback whale was one of five that came aground on Delaware shores. As of Friday, the cause of its death was still unclear.

The event triggered a “focused, expert investigation” by NOAA into the cause of the unusually high death count. According to the agency, mortalities are still elevated, and the “event” continues. However, it’s not all bad news for the species. the current East Coast population — estimated to be between 10,000-11,000 — was recently de-listed as an endangered species. But, they are still protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Once assembled, Mr. Spruance hopes that the exhibit will help give museum-goers a close-up look at the natural world around them for many years to come.

“It’ll be a great touchstone for the biodiversity we have here right off our coast in the Delaware Bay,” he said. “There’s a lot going on around us. Ultimately, it comes down to helping us stay knowledgeable about our surroundings and from start to finish, this was a Delaware story.”

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