Brushing Up On Our Baleen

Vicki Wawerchak, director of the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, chronicles the process of readying a very special marine artifact for exhibit. Below is the second installment about the prepping of whale baleen. (Read the first installment).

Last week, we continued the prepping process for the two baleen segments donated to us by the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. Baleen are plates with hard bristles inside a whale’s mouth that trap and filter small organisms for nourishment. These baleen pieces are from a gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, that was found on April 20, 2010 as a floating carcass between Alcatraz Island and Fort Mason in San Francisco.

After soaking the baleen pieces for three days in freshwater (imagine me opening the lid to the cooler at least twice a day to check on it, did I think it was going to get up and walk away?) we were ready for step two.  This took a few extra hands, so Jose Bacallao, the Aquarium’s senior aquarist, and Aaron Kind, our education specialist, also stepped in. We pulled the smaller of the two plates out of the freshwater and decided to work on one piece first to see if our technique would pan out. You don’t want to make a mistake with something like this.

We planned to clean out any organic material (soft tissue) that might be stuck in between the individual plates. The scientific weapon of choice? Nothing other than a high-tech toothbrush. We used pieces of wood to separate the individual plates, which allowed us to thoroughly clean the material. We got to work brushing the baleen, pulling out organic matter and separating the bristles. We wanted all the plates and bristles to dry straight during the drying out process. After loosening the material, we removed the wood pieces and decided to gently spray the baleen with fresh water and give it one last cleaning.

Now we were ready to figure out how to secure it for the drying process so that it would stay intact, not curl, or become infested with bugs. We brainstormed and came up with about four different techniques, before finally settling on one…

Check back next week to read about the drying process and how well it worked.