A Whale of a Tale

Vicki Wawerchak, director of the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, chronicles the process of readying a very special marine artifact for exhibit.  Stay tuned for step two. 

The Fed Ex truck pulled up last week in front of the Aquarium and we couldn’t get to the door fast enough to welcome the driver, and more importantly to welcome the four-foot cooler. The delivery ended an extensive multi-year search, and staff couldn’t find scissors fast enough. 

Opening the cooler revealed two large, dark trash bags, and as we unwrapped the securely taped bundles, an overwhelming stench caused us to recoil slightly. Upon close inspection, with breath held, we found two large pieces of intact, gray whale baleen. Baleen are plates with hard bristles inside a whale’s mouth that trap and filter small organisms for nourishment.

One piece measured 67 centimeters or approximately 2 feet, the other, 43 cm or approximately 1.5 feet.  Individual plates, ranging in size from 4 -18cm, hung down vertically from each baleen piece. We finally had marine mammal artifacts for use as education pieces for our upcoming Whale of a Weekend in February.

Marine mammal artifacts are difficult to obtain and strict protocol needs to be observed in order to request and secure specimens, including obtaining federal permits (which we did through the National Marine Fisheries Service).

After years of writing letters and making requests to various organizations, The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito donated these special artifacts to us. The baleen pieces came from a gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, that was found April 20, 2010 as a floating carcass between Alcatraz Island and Fort Mason in San Francisco.

Being a scientist, I should have known the baleen would have shipped to us straight from a freezer, but I think my excitement led me to believe I would open the cooler and the pieces would be ready to show to the public that afternoon.

However, being able to use a variety of techniques as part of the approximately six-week prepping process also appeals to my scientific side. The first task was to repack the baleen for the freezer so our scientific team could research the best way to preserve it and to learn from others. Once we found a method we hoped would work, we placed the baleen in a cooler of freshwater on Monday to help with the defrosting process.

Defrosting the baleen in water should allow it to become flexible and prevent the pieces from curling as it dries. After a few more days of soaking we will take out the pieces, removing any organic bits from between the plates and move to the next phase.