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June 03, 2008

Remains of Sunken Whale Skeleton Resurface after Eighteen Months at Bottom of Puget Sound

Burke Museum leads innovative preparatory method

Seattle – The cranium of a whale skeleton that has been on the bottom of the Puget Sound since November 2006 finally resurfaced this past Sunday, June 1, after a long, exhausting weekend for UW Friday Harbor divers.

Bringing the whale cranium to the surface was a dangerous and challenging task.Divers spent three days preparing and removing the 10-foot long skull, which was brought aboard the Centennial vessel. The remaining pieces of the whale’s skeleton still need to be removed, but the cranium is expected to be delivered to the Burke Museum, where it will join the mammalogy collection, in the next week.

The whale’s 54-foot body was recovered near Everett, WA in autumn 2006, when it was decided that the skeletal remains would be added to the Burke Museum’s mammalogy research collection and prepared for public display. The Burke Museum partnered with University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs to employ an innovative method of preparation of the skeleton for the collection.

In November 2006, the recovered whale was towed by a University of Washington research vessel to the San Juan Islands. A research group, led by David Duggins of the UW Friday Harbor Labs, sank the carcass to a depth of about 120 feet. The whale remained on the bottom of the sound, where it naturally decomposed, for 18 months. On Sunday, the whale skeleton, now stripped of its flesh, returned to the surface, ready to join the museum’s collection.

This is the first Burke whale specimen to be obtained by such means, applying this novel method of using an ecological study of natural decomposition and nutrient recycling to prepare skeletal remains, according to Curator of Mammals Jim Kenagy. The Burke’s existing collection of whales has come from fatally stranded individuals, which were prepared for the museum’s research collection through traditional methods of scraping, cooking, and cleaning.

The UW Friday Harbor team has used ROVs (remotely operated vehicles), underwater photography, and divers to document the complexity and dynamics of the ecological community that has benefited from the decomposition of the soft body parts of the fin whale. A short videocast of the footage, narrated by Kenagy, is available on the museum’s website at www.

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