Re-building the whale... Bonehenge rises in Beaufort

Re-building the whale... Bonehenge rises in Beaufort

New Bern, NC – INTRO - It's five-years-and-counting on a North Carolina Maritime Museum project, but it's not lack of effort slowing it down it's sheer size. George Olsen has more.

The project started as many projects tend to start someone volunteers you for something.

"After several days of performing a necropsy, taking tissue samples, examining the contents of the stomach, taking more measurements than you can imagine possible, someone had the crazy idea the specimen should be preserved at least the bones of it and someone suggested Keith should do it, build an exhibit for the Maritime Museum."

Keith Rittmaster, the Natural Science curator at the Maritime Museum. The project he was volunteered for rearticulating the skeleton of a 33-and-a-half foot long sperm whale that stranded and died on Cape Lookout in January 2004. So how come its 2009 and there's no whale skeleton in Beaufort? For one thing, you can't get the skeleton out through a handy zipper.

"So after removing much of the reproductive organs and digestive system, cutting the head off and removing lots of the blubber, we finally got it light enough where we could move each half separately, the skull which is about a third of the body length and then the rest of the body we could move without damaging the bones further, drag the bones up to a grave that we dug with a backhoe at the base of the primary dune and buried them."

The back half of the whale stayed buried for three years, the skull four and Rittmaster says 5-to-6 would've been better to let more of the flesh decay off the skull. Rittmaster says there wasn't much flesh left on the back half but the skull was another story and getting it back to the Maritime Museum was a feat in patience as well

"Lifted it up with the backhoe, put it on a trailer, the trailer broke, so we had to get another trailer, set it on that trailer, dragged it with a donated vehicle, the four wheel drive went out, so the backhoe had to tow the vehicle off the beach to a dock where the Park Service provided a large boat with a crane to move the skull which is on a mattress on a trailer onto the boat. Meanwhile, a full gale blew up and Cape Lookout Bight was frothy with waves, managed to get the skull to Harkers Island on someone's pickup over to the Museum's property on Gallant's Channel by sunset. It was a full day."

Ultimately every bit of whale skeleton made it to Maritime Museum property by December 2008. So now you start piecing bones together, right? Not quite. Whale bones are notoriously greasy and no museum wants a drippy exhibit.

"My good colleagues at the Maritime Museum have no interest in displaying a stinky greasy whale. So first, drying it. Then running it thru the vapor degreaser. Once all the bones are back from the degreaser we're soaking them in a hydrogen peroxide bath for six days. That further kills any bacteria."

Most of the skeletal bones were sent off to the veterinary school at N-C State which has a degreaser but not a degreaser big enough to handle a whale skull. That's among the problems with putting a whale back together. The skeletal reconstruction is underway growth plates have been attached to the appropriate vertebrae, and Rittmaster anticipates purchasing the necessary hardware in the next few months so he can start assembling bones. And where the final project will be displayed is still to be determined Rittmaster hopes it will be at the Museum in downtown Beaufort, but it is 33-and-a-half feet long and in the 1000 pound range so you just can't squeeze it in anywhere. Those problems are why it could be a few more years before an exhibit is available for public viewing. Unlike everything else, however, the name of the project was a snap.

"My friend and volunteer Nelson who was putting together the website said Keith, I need a name for this website, do you have any ideas, and I happened to be reading the June 2008 issue of National Geographic and its cover story was Stonehenge and as a joke I said Bonehenge and we both laughed but I guess it stuck because he named it Bonehenge."

While we wait for the big problems to be solved, the Maritime Museum does offer updates on the project. The next Bonehenge update is Tuesday at 3:00 pm. Keith Rittmaster is the Natural Science curator at the North Carolina Maritime Museum. I'm George Olsen.

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