Coupeville volunteers reconstruct whale’s bones for exhibit
By BRIAN KELLY
COUPEVILLE — On the back of an olive-drab 15-ton military truck, Rosie the whale went to her final resting place Friday afternoon.
Her bones have found a home, hanging from the ceiling of Coupeville’s historic wharf warehouse for the public to see.
The 33-foot gray whale washed ashore near Greenbank on Whidbey Island in December 1998. Islanders decided the marooned mammal might make a great interpretive display. Using filet knives, they whittled away at the whale, chunk by chunk, for three days, so the skeleton could be saved and rebuilt.
"When we were cutting, the water at high tide was breaking over our backs. It was thoroughly miserable," said Gerry Smith, one of the volunteers.
The work was somewhat smelly, Smith said, but not too bad.
"It was nothing that would turn your stomach," said Smith, a member of the Island County Beach Watchers, an environmental action group. The volunteers reconstructed the whale with the help of Matt Klope, a biologist at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.
It was useless wearing gloves because whale oil would soak through them, Smith said. And the rain jackets everyone wore also became oily overgarments.
"I had a doctor’s appointment one day, and I took off my foul weather gear out in the parking lot," Smith said, recalling what he whispered to the receptionist when he walked in.
"I said, ‘Do I smell as bad as I think?’ And she said, ‘Uh huh.’"
"The doctor looked at me out on the porch," Smith said with a laugh. "He didn’t want me sitting on his chairs."
After the whale skeleton was taken apart, the pieces were carried a mile down the beach to be loaded into vehicles. Other parts, including the skull and flippers, were put into a 10-foot aluminum boat that was pulled along by a volunteer who waded chest-deep in the frigid winter water.
With Klope’s help, the Navy lent the volunteers a building where they could work on the whale. The bones were put in perforated 55-gallon drums, which were then sunk in Crescent Harbor so crabs and other sea creatures could feast on the meat that hadn’t been cut away.
Picked clean like the crispiest leg in a bucket of fried chicken, the bones were then painted and preserved.
Volunteers brushed the bones with a half-and-half mixture of water and Elmer’s glue, with a little paint added for coloring.
Named Rosie because it sounds like her last name in the science world, Eschrichtius robustus, the whale died during a detour in her southward migration to Baja California. Rosie was most likely looking for food and died of starvation, biologists said.
Roughly 100 people worked on the project for more than 2,300 hours, Smith said. On Friday, a group of Seabees from Construction Battalion Unit 417 loaded Rosie onto the truck for her final journey south from Oak Harbor to Coupeville.
"It’s the perfect example of our community, all these people working together," said Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard.c "It’s just going to be a wonderful educational exhibit and, I think, a good draw for our tourism industry."
Once at the Coupeville dock, a group of seven Seabees lifted Rosie’s skull from the truck. It took a team of 14 Seabees to pull the huge ribcage off the rig, plus several more hours to get the skeleton inside the wharf warehouse, put it back together and raise it into place.
Even so, it wasn’t a whale of a job for Rosie’s chauffeur, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Morris. He backed the big truck expertly down the long, narrow pier, with barely enough room on each side to slip a salmon by.
"I’m used to hauling heavy equipment mostly, bulldozers, graders," Morris said. "This is by far the weirdest."
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