A Whale of a Tale
In September 2018, staff from the Delaware Museum of Natural History brought the skull of a juvenile humpback whale, as well as several other pieces of the skeleton, to the museum for exhibit and educational use. The bones were all that remained of a young humpback whale that died at sea and washed ashore in April 2017 at Port Mahon, DE. Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control moved the corpse to coastal state land near Pickering Beach, where it could decompose undisturbed.
When museum staff heard about the whale, they thought it would make an interesting addition to the reimagined museum. Bringing a piece of this size to the museum was a task with equally large challenges, which many of the staff never imagined they would undertake. Starting in mid-2017, museum staff kept an eye on the whale, secured permits, and starting in June 2018 began bringing a portion of the skeleton back to the Museum as new additions to the exhibit collection.
Because the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act federally protects whales, in order to bring the bones to the Museum, the staff had to obtain a permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“We are holding the bones in trust for the public,” says Shea. “If we decide in the future not to interpret them or to not do whale programming, then we have to give them back. They go back to NOAA.”
The Logistics of Moving a Whale
Deciding to bring the whale to the museum raised a series of questions. How would the staff move a several hundred pound skull? How would they clean the bones? And how would the bones be exhibited?
Most of the whale’s vertebrae were easy for them to obtain because these bones hadn’t sunk very deep into the sand near Pickering Beach over the course of the year. However, in order to obtain the skull, the staff would need to leverage it out of the sand. How much flesh would still be attached to underside of the skull when they did so was something Shea says they couldn’t predict.
Learn more about how museum staff moved the whale skull to the Museum from the Delaware State News, Delawareonline and Delmarva Now, WBOC, WDEL, and Delaware Public Media.
Over the course of many weeks and multiple site visits, the staff developed a plan to move the skull, including wedging pieces of wood under the skull to lift it out of the sand and onto its side. Then, they used a pressure washer powered by a generator to wash the skull’s underside before moving it to a clean location on the beach where it could finish decaying. Chris Hayden, the Museum’s Director of Maintenance and the key architect behind the plan to move the skull, set up a pump system to draw water from the Delaware Bay into a filtration system to supply the pressure washer. Once the skull was free of the sand and clean, it was carried across the beach to a wood palette where the skull sat while waiting to be finally moved to the museum.
At 8 by 11 feet, the skull was too large to fit in an ordinary pickup truck. To bring it the sixty miles to the museum, Hayden and his team moved the skull onto a flat trailer pulled by a truck. On the way north, the team stopped at the Cartanza Grain Elevator to weigh the skull: 280 lbs., not counting the jawbones.
The bones needed to be cleaned and prepared before being used for exhibits, educational programs, or storage within the collections. While museum staff had experience cleaning and treating smaller bones, none of them had worked with a whale skeleton before. “We have learned that whale bones can leak oils for many, many years,” said Elizabeth Shea, Ph.D., the museum’s Director of Collections and Curator of Mollusks. “So we need to do what we can to minimize that.”
To help make these challenges more manageable, the staff decided to only obtain a portion of the skeleton, including the skull, the right jawbone, vertebrae from three different sections of the spine, and several pieces from the flipper. Shea says they chose pieces that could be used for education and what would captivate visitors.
The jawbone and skull were too large to fit in either the freezers or the bug room and were temporarily stored in a shed built specifically to hold the bones. In March 2021, the museum brought in an expert, Dan DenDanto from Whales and Nails, who took both pieces back to his facility in Maine to clean and prepare them for exhibit. Whales and Nails articulates whale skeletons for museums and educational institutions.
Telling a Whale’s Story…and a Delaware Story
Bringing the whale to the museum involved more than just physically transporting it to its new home. Museum staff wanted to tell the whale’s story through exhibits and interpretation.
“My hope is that we can have a story to go with the whale,” says Helen Bilinski, the museum’s Director of Exhibits. The museum’s humpback whale was one of five that washed ashore in Delaware between 2016 and 2017. Understanding how it died is one place for the staff to start in uncovering the whale’s story. Shea says they’ve requested the whale’s autopsy from the Marine Education, Research, and Rehabilitation Institute (MERR), who attended to the whale when it washed ashore.
Shortly after the whale was found, NOAA declared that an “unusual mortality event” had occurred for humpback whales near the Atlantic coast. The designation was prompted because, starting in 2016, an abnormal number of them had washed up dead along the United States’ east coast.
When NOAA designates an “unusual mortality event,” they organize a group of outside scientists to help NOAA’s Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events research the cause for the event. The Atlantic humpback whale study is still ongoing. Our whale is one of eight in Delaware who died during this UME.
Beyond a closer look at these deaths, Bilinski says the whale can also tell a story of “life happening off the coast of Delaware that few people know about.”
Populations of humpback whales from Maine and Canada pass offshore the entire east coast as they migrate to the West Indies to breed and give birth and back north to feed. However, in a 2002 study published in the Journal of Cetacean Research and Management, a group of scientists suggested that the Mid-Atlantic could also act as an additional feeding ground for humpback whales.
The museum staff hopes the whale will help them better tell the story of Delaware’s coastal waterways. “The estuary we live on—the Delaware Bay—is a really important estuary,” says Shea. “The land masses we all live on are a third of what the world has to offer. So there’s a lot out there in the oceans we need to be talking about.”
Take a look at the Oceans exhibits, featuring our juvenile humpback whale skull, in the Alison K. Bradford Global Journey Gallery. The whale exhibit is sponsored by M&T Bank.
This is an updated version of an article written by Lindsay Townsend, originally published on the Delaware Museum of Natural History website in October 2018.