Beached whale from Seattle being put back together piece by piece in Tacoma

Tacoma – A whale that beached itself and died in Seattle last year is slowly taking shape – bone by giant bone – in a vacant Tacoma storefront.

Marine biologist Rus Higley, his Highline Community College staff and a volunteer team are bleaching and assembling the gray whale skeleton on the 300 block of Puyallup Avenue.

Sometime after July 4, the bones will be moved to the Foss Waterway Seaport to be rearticulated into a lifelike configuration. Later this year the skeleton will be hung in a display area in Des Moines, where Higley works as an instructor and the manager at the Marine Science and Technology Center.

The young whale beached itself in April 2010 a half mile south of the Fauntleroy ferry dock in West Seattle. It was alive when found; video shows the whale thrashing in the water. It died soon after.

The whale might have been on its spring migration from Mexico, or could have been a year-round resident of Puget Sound. What caused it to beach itself and die was never determined.

During a necropsy (an animal autopsy) its stomach was found to contain a sweat pants leg, duct tape, a Ziploc bag and a golf ball. Higley said those items didn’t kill the whale but, “it couldn’t have helped.”

The whale had no obvious injuries and did not appear excessively thin, but the last few bones of its tail exhibit a gruesome calcification.

“That’s indication of damage or disease,” Higley said.

When a whale washes up on a beach it becomes the land owner’s responsibility. The catch: You can’t keep it unless you have permission from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Higley said.

Once NOAA granted Higley possession of the gray whale, it was towed to an undisclosed location in Pierce County for a necropsy by State Fish and Wildlife and Cascadia Research.

That’s when Higley and a volunteer crew got involved. He estimates the whale weighed about 40,000 pounds.

“It took three of us to drag the flipper along the ground,” he said.

The team used big kitchen knives to carve up the remains, a process called cleansing. The fibrous blubber constantly dulled the knives during the off-and-on job.

“I had one person sharpening the knives the whole time,” he said.

Getting volunteers to help carve up the quickly decomposing whale was easy, even with Higley’s pitch to potential volunteers: “At the end of the day you’re going to throw your clothes away.”

He said the smell was pervasive, sticking to hair and skin. It went away only after four or five scrubbings in the shower. Higley said he had to leave his rubber boots in his backyard for two months before the stench faded.

Thirty-person teams spent hundreds of hours cleansing the skeleton. In September, when enough flesh had been removed, the bones were buried under 10 cubic yards of horse manure.

Nature took its course, and in March the bones were dug up. The skull, once so heavy nine people could barely drag it, can now be lifted by three.

This week Higley and his team are bleaching the bones using a paste containing hydrogen peroxide – the same stuff used in hair salons to create “peroxide blondes.”

In the former gallery space on Puyallup Avenue, the skeleton looks like a deflated dinosaur. Forty vertebrae are laid out in a line with their ribs nearby. At the head is the gigantic skull with its beak-like snout.

Though Higley is no expert on whale anatomy (he has a manual for that), there are parallels to humans, he says. As he walks carefully among the skeleton parts he points out bones analogous to people’s.

“This is my shoulder blade,” he says, pointing to a scapula – the whale’s is 3 feet wide. Other bones are no bigger than a human thumb.

All have registration numbers on them.

After the whale is moved to the Foss Seaport, the bones will hang on a 2-inch pipe for support, with another, smaller diameter pipe used for spacing and alignment. Foam and silicon will replicate the cartilage.

The baleen will be reattached, and the reassembled whale will be given a curve to suggest movement.

The public will be able to watch the process during the summer.

Despite his career as a marine biologist, “This has been a huge learning curve for me,” Higley said.

The long and often smelly hours he and his crew have invested are satisfying, he said. The work brings science into the real world.

“People have these connections with these things,” he said. “It’s real, it’s touchable. You can learn out of a textbook but it doesn’t have quite the same effect.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541