Whale's bones tell a tale
Photos by Robert C. Williams
Friday Harbor Labs researcher David Duggins steadies the cranium of a fin whale as it is hoisted from the bottom of Puget Sound to a University of Washington research vessel.
A brown rockfish swims by three vertebrae that are among the pieces of the whale's skeleton still resting on the sea floor.
Scientists thought the whale's skeleton would remain hard for decades. Instead, the 500-pound skull that rose from the briny depths was spongy, tunneled through with worm holes and in generally terrible shape.
The heavy decomposition wasn't quite what marine biologist David Duggins expected to find in such a relatively recent whale carcass. After filming the whale's natural decomposition, the team expected to be able to donate a nice new, fin whale skull to the Burke Museum in Seattle.
"The speed at which things are happening is a surprise," said Duggins, with Friday Harbor Labs, a University of Washington-affiliated marine research center.
Duggins obtained the whale for his research through a marine mammal recovery program run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The 54-foot-long young male fin whale was found dead in November 2006, floating off a pier at the Port of Everett. It's believed the whale had been struck by a large ship at sea, then dragged into port.
By working through a program run by NOAA, Duggins received permission to use the animal for a research project studying animal and plant life that flourishes from this type of bounty.
The dead whale was towed from Everett to a secret location near San Juan Island. Researchers tied steel boxcar wheels with cable to the whale's tail, plunging the whale 120 feet to the sandy bottom.
The experiment was on.
Duggins and Craig Smith, a professor at the University of Hawaii, are studying how nutrients released from the whale carcass affect the marine ecosystem. Smith is most interested in researching organisms that are unique to whale bones.
He has not found anything unusual yet, but researchers plan to continue diving and pulling up a few of the whale's bones now and then to examine the colonies of organisms that are living on them.
Shortly after the whale was sunk, researchers lost track of it for a while because a marking buoy had been lost. Once they found it again, they were hindered by a balky remote-control underwater camera.
Bringing the 9 1/2-foot-long cranium to the deck of the UW research vessel Centennial was a challenge. Fighting strong ocean currents in a dark environment, divers spent two days making a three-point lift by pushing straps through the whale's eye sockets and beak.
While no one knows exactly why "Everett" decomposed so fast, Duggins offers a few possible explanations.
Similar falls -- as dead whales and other creatures that sink to the bottom are called -- have been observed to stay intact for 30 and 40 years. One reason for the rapid degradation may have been the area's heavy ocean currents, where well-oxygenated water and microbial activity are available, he said.
Another is the fact that the whale was a juvenile and its bones may not have been fully calcified.
Whatever the cause, the results were disappointing to the UW's Burke Museum, which helped fund the experiment.
"It's amusing to look at," said Jim Kenagy, curator of mammals at the museum. But of little use for the museum's mammalogy research collection, which already contains more than 50,000 specimens.
While the skull was too weak for its needs, the museum is considering permanently loaning it to Friday Harbor Labs. Other pieces of the skeleton, including two jawbones, remain on the sea floor.
The Friday Harbor experiment was the first time the museum had attempted to obtain a whale through such a novel method, Kenagy said. The museum's existing skeletons were prepared either by burying the whales on beaches or by cooking pieces in giant industrial vats.
Meanwhile, the researchers are doing some whale waiting: Sooner or later, they may have another crack at another few tons of carcass. About a dozen dead whales are found in Washington and Oregon every year.
Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or email@example.com.
To see a video about the fin whale experiment, go to www.washington.edu/burkemuseum/podcast.
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