Unraveling the Mysterious 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 third installment about the prepping of whale baleen, plates of hard bristles inside a whale’s mouth that trap and filter small organisms for nourishment.

Previous installments in this series:

1. A Whale of a Tale (December 22, 2010)

2. Brushing Up On Our Baleen (January 5, 2011)

After the final cleanout of the baleen plates, Aquarium staffers passed around ideas about how best to separate the individual plates to allow for adequate drying. Thoughts included everything from using cardboard, PVC pipe to plastic sheeting. We finally settled on using wood. We inserted the wooden boards carefully, again using the toothbrush to straighten out the individual bristles and to ensure they wouldn’t bend while securing the piece to the drying rack.

Meanwhile, we received an email from our contact at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito — the facility that gave us the baleen specimen — with more details about the animal whose baleen will soon be used to educate our visitors.

The carcass of the gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, was floating between Alcatraz Island and Fort Mason in San Francisco, causing a hazard to vessel traffic in the Bay. The U.S. Coast Guard towed the body to a nearby beach, where Marine Mammal Center staff examined it. They determined the whale to be a juvenile male, estimated to be two to four years old.  While they noted lacerations typical of a great white shark bite, staffers guessed the wounds probably occurred post mortem. Cause of death was undetermined.

With the additional knowledge of the baleen’s origins, we turned our concern back to the specimen. We worried about the baleen curling during the drying process. To prevent this, we secured the whole plate with twine and tied it onto a plastic grating that we elevated on a board. The elevation of the baleen allowed for increased air circulation as well as a way to allow for any dripping that might occur. We then secured two L-shaped brackets on either side of the entire piece and used C-clamps to position the artifact to ensure the shape of the piece would not change as it lost moisture.

As we finished securing the baleen on our homemade drying rack, we moved the piece inside the Aquarium’s Green Room and set it up with a few fans to aid with air circulation and to speed up the drying process. And then the wait began … this step is going to take about two weeks. 

Check back next week to read about the unveiling – and see the final product.