GUSTAVUS - From the calm shores of Bartlett Cove at the entrance to Glacier Bay National Park, you can often hear the spouts of nearby humpback whales. For decades, researchers have been cataloguing and studying humpbacks in these waters, using photographs of tail flukes to identify individual whales.
Whale 68: Humpback a valuable research subject in life and after death 111611 NEWS 1 For the Capital City Weekly GUSTAVUS - From the calm shores of Bartlett Cove at the entrance to Glacier Bay National Park, you can often hear the spouts of nearby humpback whales. For decades, researchers have been cataloguing and studying humpbacks in these waters, using photographs of tail flukes to identify individual whales.

A fluke photo from the final sighting of Snow, or Whale 68, on June 26, 2001. Snow was hit July 13 and found floating dead on July 16, 2011. A necropsy by marine mammal veterinarian Frances Gulland of The Marine Mammal Center in California determined that the cause of death was blunt trauma and skull fracture.

Photos Courtesy National Park Service

After an adult female humpback was found floating dead following a collision with a large ship in 2001, the carcass was towed to Point Gustavus. Shown here is the carcass and skull on the beach, where it was left for 18 months. Glacier Bay National Park staff hoped that all the flesh would fall off the bones naturally, but after a year and a half on the beach, other cleaning methods were still required.

One of the most effective bone cleaning methods was to soak them in seawater for six months, using an old seine net. Humpback whale researcher Chris Gabriele, left, helps lower the net into the water.

Glacier Bay National Park staff, along with volunteers, spent countless hours cleaning bones and preparing the skeleton for eventual display. Shown here is part of the process of retrieving bones from the rotting carcass.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Story last updated at 11/16/2011 - 12:16 pm

Whale 68: Humpback a valuable research subject in life and after death

GUSTAVUS - From the calm shores of Bartlett Cove at the entrance to Glacier Bay National Park, you can often hear the spouts of nearby humpback whales. For decades, researchers have been cataloguing and studying humpbacks in these waters, using photographs of tail flukes to identify individual whales.

A decade ago, a large cruise ship struck one of these individuals, an adult female. The loss was felt sharply among whale researchers - this was Whale 68, also known as Snow, first sighted by pioneer whale researcher Charles Jurasz in Glacier Bay in 1975 as an adult-sized whale. Over the next 25 years, Snow was seen all over Southeast Alaska and in Hawaii before her final sighting in Glacier Bay in June 2001, a few weeks before being hit.

Snow has a long history in the scientific literature, said Chris Gabriele, a wildlife biologist with Glacier Bay's Humpback Whale Monitoring Program who has worked in the park since 1991.

"That made it such a huge loss to lose that individual," she said.

After Snow was found floating dead, National Park Service staff towed the carcass to the beach at Point Gustavus, and the staff deliberated over the best thing to do with Snow's remains. Return them to the ocean? Save some of the bones for educational purposes? Save all of the bones for educational purposes?

After much discussion, and with the support of the community of Gustavus, they decided to save all of the bones and display the entire skeleton in the park.

"Once we realized how magnificent it was, and exemplary, we decided to make a display of it," Gabriele said. "It creates a good opportunity for talking about all kinds of things that visitors want to know."

A long lawsuit against the ship that struck the whale resulted in settlement money, which will help pay for the structure.

More than a thousand hours of work by more than 60 people have gone into the cleaning and collection of the bones so far.

"It's been a saga," Gabriele said.

At the beginning, they left the skeleton on the beach, hoping that all the flesh would fall away naturally, but after 18 months, when the entire skeleton was collected, the bones were still far from clean. Next, they took most of the bones and used pieces of an old seine net, donated by then-Hoonah resident David Belton, to tie them into bundles. The bundles were soaked in seawater for half a year, allowing marine life to clean and degrease the bones, which proved to be a very effective cleaning method, Gabriele said. Some of the bones were just more stubborn, though, taking years of various treatments, from boiling to burying, to get clean. Degreasing was the biggest challenge, since whale bones are so full of oil.

Another challenge was finding missing bones after the carcass had sat on the beach for 18 months. A call for the 17 missing bones was put out, and two were returned, no questions asked. The above-average size of this whale made finding replacement bones from other whales difficult, Gabriele said. For the bones they aren't able to collect, they will make facsimiles.

The final preparation of the bones will take place next summer. Next fall, they will contract with a bone re-articulation expert to put the skeleton together. Meanwhile, a shelter will be constructed in Bartlett Cove, in the same "Mission 66" architectural style as the other park buildings. The goal is to complete the skeleton display by spring of 2013.

"We've heard nothing but support from the community," Gabriele said. "People are pretty excited about it."

And for good reason. There are only 17 humpback whale skeletons currently on display in the world, most in the 30- to 40-foot range. So at 45.5 feet long, this skeleton is one of the largest, topped only by a 49-foot skeleton in Newfoundland.

Snow isn't significant for her size alone. Both while alive and after her death, data from this individual whale contributed greatly to humpback whale research.

In a study published in 2001, Gabriele collaborated with other researchers in both Alaska and Hawaii to study calf mortality rates. Out of thousands of records of humpback whale sightings collected over 16 years, they could only find 29 cases in which they had spotted the same mothers in Hawaii and then later that year in Alaska. Snow was one of them, having been spotted with a calf in 1986 in Hawaii and then later that same year in Alaska. The study estimated that about 20 percent of calves die in their first year.

Following her death, Snow made another significant contribution to humpback whale research, providing evidence that the humpback lifespan may be twice as long as some researchers previously thought. For many years, researchers have used the waxy ear plug to estimate the age of baleen whales, counting growth layers like rings in a tree. But researchers have long disagreed about whether humpbacks deposit one or two growth layers annually. Since ear plugs can only be collected after a whale's death, "Unless you see a whale when it's a calf, you don't know how old it is," Gabriele said.

After Snow died, researchers were able to collect her ear plugs and had two experts read the layers. She had 44 and a half layers, which, since she'd been seen by researchers since 1975, would be impossible if whale ear plugs accumulated two layers a year. Snow's ear plugs suggest that humpbacks put down only one growth layer in their ear plugs a year. This knowledge allows researchers to go back and interpret the ear plug ages of humpbacks killed by commercial whalers in the 20th century, which indicate that most live about 50 years, with the maximum lifespan documented at 96 years, Gabriele said. It also means that Snow was born in 1957, just prior to Alaska Statehood.

Information about Snow's life and her contribution to our understanding of humpbacks will be part of the interpretive panels being developed to accompany the skeleton display, said Tom VandenBerg, the supervisory ranger at Glacier Bay National Park. The park also plans to hire a whale educator, who will provide both local and visiting kids with opportunities to participate and learn about the skeleton reconstruction, as well as a web-based component so people elsewhere can experience the project as well.

Additionally, Gabriele thinks the skeleton will provide a good starting point for discussions about preventing future collisions between whales and boats.

"Every geographic area where you study collisions you find a different user group at risk," she said. "In Southeast Alaska it's the small private boats and commercial charters, whale watches and tour vessels that have a majority of the collisions. For those boats, it's both a human safety issue and a whale injury issue. You would be surprised to know how many people had been injured or thrown into the water by collisions with whales in southeastern Alaska."

Most of these collisions are caused by whales popping up in front of fast-traveling vessels, Gabriele said, so slowing down in areas where there are whales is strongly recommended. But in almost all the cases where a whale collided with a stationary vessel, the vessel was quiet - either anchored or drifting with its engine off.

Boaters need to make sure whales are aware of them, Gabriele said, explaining that "a silent boat is an invisible boat to a whale because they experience the world by how it sounds." She recommends kayakers do some "sloppy paddling," clunking their paddles against the sides of their boats when whales are nearby. Similarly, small private boaters could leave their engines on or knock on their hulls to make sure the whales know they are there.

It's an important discussion in Glacier Bay, where almost all visitors spend time on the water, whether in a kayak, a tour boat, a cruise ship or a private vessel.

Regardless of how they arrive in the park, VandenBerg thinks the skeleton display will be a highlight for Glacier Bay's approximately 30,000 annual visitors, a number he said is increasing with the new Alaska Marine Highway System ferry service to Gustavus.

"(Humpbacks) spark the imagination of people like crazy," VandenBerg said. "Every visitor who comes to Glacier Bay expects to see whales, wants to see whales. I think the power of this display is that for the first time you're going to be able to be up close and personal, and see how big they are."

Added Gabriele: "Working with Snow's bones, I've learned more about whale anatomy than I ever thought I would know, and the skeleton exhibit will provide that opportunity to thousands of park visitors each year. Losing this whale was a very sad event but we really wanted to turn it around and make it positive."

Katie Spielberger writes from Juneau. She may be reached at