Wrangell collects gray whale bones for research, education

Wrangell High School students studying oceanography are hauling a portion of the spine of the whale. (Photo Courtesy of Martin Hutton/ Wrangell Ranger District)

This month, a group of forest service employees along with five Wrangell High School students traveled to the Eastern Passage to collect the bones of a gray whale that unexpectedly washed up on shore earlier this year. The skeleton will provide plenty of local educational and research opportunities.

A group of teenage boys are rolling a giant whale skull into the back of a landing craft. The bones are heavy and awkward. And there is a smell, though it’s not nearly as bad as when the whale first showed up.

The whale carcass was spotted floating near Channel Island last June. It was one among hundreds of gray whales reported to NOAA that have mysteriously died in along the West Coast this year. Within days, the forest service gathered a group of community members to perform a necropsy on the whale. They took blubber and feces samples hoping to find evidence that would reveal the cause of the unexpected mortality event.  

Three months later, the corpse has changed significantly. 

I thought it would decompose this much but not this fast,” says Martin Hutton with Wrangell’s Ranger District. “I’m amazed at the sheer volume of this whale and how fast it disappeared.”

Over the summer, the carcass laid on a rocky beach tied to nearby trees. Hutton says, as the tides came in, sea critters would feast on the carcass, and as the tide went out land animals would do the same. 

At least, that’s what Hutton thinks. He’ll have a better idea once the Forest Service looks at video footage from the past three months. The agency set up cameras in nearby trees and collected the tape on this trip. 

When it came to collecting the bones, the Forest Service decided to include the school this time. 

The school arranged for a group of students studying oceanography to go on this trip, along with their science teacher Heather Howe. She’s looking at a mass of bones and applying what she knows about human anatomy to what’s laying on the beach.

“There’s so many similarities in the way the vertebrae look and the different phalanges, so to see the bones would be really cool,” Howe says.

“I better be getting an A,” jokes Coby Holder, one of the students on the trip. With a dull ax, he’s hacking away at the remaining tissue on the spine. The Forest Service didn’t want the nasty goop on their boat.

The Nolan center is expecting to display the skull. If all the bones are there, then the school hopes to assemble and display the whole skeleton. More than likely, some bones are missing. In that case the school will still have the opportunity to examine what remains of the gray whale.