Inside Seattle Pacific University’s Eaton Hall, a small group of students huddle around the huge skull of a gray whale, whose bones they’ve all been studying intently for two weeks. Then, they take turns drilling into it.
“It definitely is terrifying — trying to drill a huge hole through like five different bones. And being a small person, I have to put all of my weight into shoving it through.” says LeeAnn Bowers, an English major from Oklahoma.
She and her classmates are drilling into the skull to attach bolts so it can hang from wires. Two other groups are working concurrently on the whale’s rib cage and its tail. The class already finished assembling the spine and flippers.
With the skull, they have to be extra careful to make sure it stays in one piece. Its assembly was complicated; the whale was a juvenile when she died and washed up on a private beach on the southern Kitsap Peninsula last year. It turned out the plates of her skull were not yet fused together. So, the class has been working with all the pieces.
“About seven pieces instead of just one,” Bowers says. “So, some of her bones, when they dried, they actually warped. And so we had to cut them into pieces and reassemble them to try to get them to align the correct way.”
The skull is just one of several puzzles this whale skeleton has presented. And co-instructor Rus Higley says it really is up to the students to solve them.
“This group is so awesome, because I give them a couple minutes direction. And then I walk away,” he says. “The final positions — it’s their decisions.”
Higley is on loan from Highline College, where he teaches marine biology. His team at Highline’s Marine Science and Technology Center has worked on dozens of marine mammals. This is his third time articulating the skeleton of a whale. But this course is interdisciplinary. Higley says being a science major is not a prerequisite.
“I equate this with building a deck. Most of the stuff we buy, we buy at a local hardware store,” he says. “Anyone can build a deck. But there are some tricks. And if you know those tricks, building a deck is easier.”
Still, certain parts of the skeleton are extremely technical, like figuring out how to accurately assemble the rib cage. Damage there tells them that orcas attacked this whale, but she survived it. And there are all kinds of angles and dimensions to consider as the students decide where to hang each rib.
Senior ecology major Sarah Daman is in charge of this particular conundrum. She took the prior course on vertebrate biology that sorted and catalogued the bones, in preparation for the assembly.
“I can guarantee they’re not perfect. But for us, they’re perfect,” Daman says.
She reviewed all kinds of literature and pictures of whale skeletons on display in other places before signing off on her team’s design, which is ultimately an educated guess.
Because, Daman says, of course they don’t have an X-ray of this whale. And no one measured how wide her body was when she was alive. So, they went with what looked best to them.
Daman is fascinated by every aspect of this process and hopes this skeleton will inspire others, too.
“Animals die all the time, but how much can we learn from her story? How much can we learn from her life?" she says. "Traveling from Baha to Alaska — I mean there’s so much along the way that we can learn. And there’s so much that we don’t know. And there’s so much that’s a mystery, which is so cool!”
All 20 of the students in this course have engaged in what they are calling “an interdisciplinary inquiry as a way of coming to know the unknown.” They’re thinking and reading deeply on the question of whether you can actually know a whale — even when you’ve spent hours holding and processing its bones. There’s also an evening speaker series with lectures and panel discussions on these themes that is open to the public, via Zoom.
English Professor Peter Moe dreamed up the course and brought the animal to campus. He got the carcass on an educational permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And he collaborated with Higley to learn how to process the skeleton and design the course.
Ever since he was a kid, Moe says he’s been fascinated by whales. “And, you know, I love the book of Jonah. I love Moby Dick. So when I noticed that our science building had this huge open area, I just thought one day you could hang a whale up there. And so now here we are,” he says.
Moe says they’ve been talking a lot about how when you see a whale in the wild, you usually catch only a brief glimpse of a fraction of its body.
“And that yeah, we know this one whale really well. But there’s a lot we don’t know about whales. We don’t even know how many species of whales there are," he says. "And we can grasp toward knowledge. But there’s always knowledge that’s beyond us.”
And that goes even for the one whale Moe and his students have been spending so much time with, ever since Moe got the call that she had washed up and was available for his project. They know she is female, because the necropsy revealed ovaries. She was emaciated when she died, with an empty stomach and protruding ribs that indicate she probably starved to death. She was less than 2 years old and likely recently weaned.
But knowing these things doesn’t make the students feel like they really know her.
“It feels like every time I learn something more, I don't get an answer. I just get three more questions," says communication major Alex Pederson, a senior. "And I love that. It's awesome."
He says he bonded with the whale, in a way, during the first week of the class, when he worked on her left flipper.
“And I was just amazed at how much it looked like my own arm,” Pederson says, even though he was working with 2-foot-long, 6-inch-thick bones — so much larger than his own. “It's just crazy to think about the difference, but also the similarity. I mean, it's the same exact anatomy as me because we're both mammals, but it's so much bigger and so … specialized for something else.”
He says he has been journaling extensively about the entire experience, and although he never felt very connected to SPU or the people here until this course, he now envisions someday bringing his kids back to campus to show them the whale.
Still, despite his feelings and all the close work with this whale, Pederson says it would be something else entirely to say he knows her. Other students related similar sentiments.
For these reasons, the class opted not to give the whale a name. There was a robust debate, with discussions for nearly a week. They concluded that a name felt too intimate. They decided to give her a title instead, after the beach where she was found. She will be called The Longbranch Whale.
“Because we're trying to highlight that…this whale didn't just live in the science building. It was part of the ecosystem and a cultural community. And it had a life besides where we're at,” Pederson says. “So, giving it a title really allows us to tell the story and give respect to the whale without taking it over for ourselves, I think.”
That respect didn’t stop students from having fun with their experience, though. After hanging the rib cage, many celebrated by taking selfies or getting their photos taken inside the nearly complete skeleton.
“This is your Jonah moment!” Moe said, encouraging the festivities and calling more students into the photo session.
The whale will hang in the lobby of the science building, Eaton Hall, in the open space above the area where the students assembled the rib cage. Moe says it looks like it was made for this. And he hopes the display will evoke a sense of reverence and awe for a species that is so much larger than us — and that recovered after decades of being hunted.
He also wants people to admire her.
“She has this really nice curve to her spine. And she’s 29 feet. The space is 30 feet. It’s a tight fit. And I hope when people see her they have this sense that she’s, like, busting out of the building, you know?” he says with a laugh, punching his palm for effect.
The final session of the public speaker series associated with the course takes place Wednesday evening at 7, on the theme, “Save the Whales.”
UPDATE, Sept. 2: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect spelling of Sarah Daman's last name. It has been corrected.