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Orca 'Swims Again' Thanks To Skeleton Builders

Knowing how to assemble a whale skeleton is a rare skill. But for a small group of students at Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College in Homer, rebuilding skeletons is all in a day’s work. This fall, they assembled a baby orca skeleton as part of an eight-week class.

A team of three college students hunches over a raised garden bed, armed with spades. They carefully sift through the soil with fine metal sieves.

It looks like an amateur archeology dig, but with one key difference: they’re digging up a baby orca whale.

The discolored bones peeking through the dirt look like they’ve seen better days. But don’t hold it against them; they’ve been buried for two years.

The orca washed up dead in July 2014 in Bear Cove, near the head of Kachemak Bay. After a necropsy was performed, a team of volunteers removed the organs and blubber. Then they laid the carcass inside the raised garden bed and covered it with four feet of fresh horse manure.

Over time, the microbes in the manure slowly ate away the whale flesh, leaving only the bones and a pile of rich compost. 

Lee Post, also known as the Boneman, is a self-taught skeleton builder and the instructor leading the course. He leans over the garden bed, examining the newly-exposed jaw bone.

“Believe it or not, this is state of the art for cleaning whale skeletons in America right now,” says Post. “This is exciting stuff for us bone nerds!”

Small whale bones look just like rocks, especially when they’ve been buried for two years. Student Jamie Knaub demonstrates one way to tell the difference.

“You actually tap it against your tooth. The rock feels like metal and the bone is more of like a plastic-y feel,” Knaub says.

Knaub is one of two students helping to prep the bones before the class starts. She says rebuilding a skeleton is a hands-on way to understand what makes an animal go.

“There’s no better way to learn anatomy than touching it yourself. It’s a puzzle,” she says.

Once they’ve finished digging up the bones, the students dip them in soapy water and scrub them with bristle brushes.

Next the bones take a bath in a 25-gallon tub of hydrogen peroxide. The frothy brown liquid pops and bubbles, as they slowly whiten.

After nearly a month of excavating, cleaning and bleaching the bones, the students are ready to get down to business. On the first day of class, the 12 students divide into teams, each in charge of one skeleton section. There's the rib team, the flipper team and even the skull team.

The students quickly discover that some bones are missing. Because this was a baby orca, some of its bones were made of a temporary cartilage that rotted away after it died.

Alayna Hawkins is on the flipper crew. They’re missing almost 30 flipper bones, which they’ll have to build out of water putty.

Hawkins uses dental tools to add texture to the fake bones. The secret, she says, is to make sure they don’t look too perfect.

“When I was first doing it, I was so careful about it, like placing this dot here and this dot here. Now I just do it random wherever and not care if it looks pristine and perfect,” Hawkins says.

Building fake bones isn’t the only challenge. When this whale was alive, its bones were held together with tendons and cartilage. As a substitute, the students use a sturdy metal rod as the backbone of the skeleton.

Knaub, who is on the spine crew, drills holes through each vertebra and threads them onto the metal rod, like beads on a string.

The sound of drilling through bone doesn’t bother her. It’s the smell.

“It’s kind of like a musky, burning flesh smell,” Knaub says.

Instructor Lee Post erects a 12-foot long wooden frame in the classroom. Using rope, the students hang the spine from the frame and gradually add each section of the whale.

Post flits from group to group, trying to supervise the entire process. One of the most important steps is making sure the ribs are symmetrical.

Imagine a picket fence where the pickets are all over the place. It just wouldn't look right,” Post says.

Finally, it’s time for the last piece: the skull. Everyone holds their breath as Knaub and Post struggle to slide the skull into place.

For Knaub, who has been involved in the entire process, it’s a proud moment.

“It’s not just an object. This was an animal. It had a life, it had a spirit. It swam in our waters. It’s cool to put it back together, because you feel like it’s alive again,” Knaub says.

This is the third class Post has taught. For years, assembling skeletons was a solitary activity for him. He says working with students brings back some of the old excitement he felt when he was first learning.

“Now the thrill is having enthusiastic people who thought they could never touch something like this because they weren’t museum Ph.Ds or something. My cheap thrills is doing it through their eyes again,” Post says.

The class is finished, but Post isn’t resting on his laurels. For him, there’s always another skeleton waiting to be assembled.