GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 2, 2012

A whale of a project

Scientists lead clearing of Rockport's dead finback

By Marjorie Nesin Staff Writer
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — ROCKPORT — Scientists and volunteers buried what had become one of the town’s oddest, temporary tourist draws Thursday, extracting the bones from a long-dead, beached finback whale, before burying the carcass remains in the Cape Hedge Beach parking lot.

After a composting and bleaching process that will leave the bones white and relatively scentless, the Seacoast Science Museum of Rye New Hampshire plans to display the bones either as a full whale skeleton or display skeletal parts of the whale, like the skull or a fin, according to the museum’s assistant aquarist, Kelsey Greenier.

”There’s a lot of things we can or will fix up,” Greenier said. “The jaws came out great, but the skull is kind of broken which is too bad.”

Officials were hoping for unbroken bones, but the whale sustained injuries in its long journey that cracked and shattered areas of its skeleton.

The whale carcass originally floated into Rockport and became stuck on a beachfront off Penzance Road on Oct. 20. The whale carcass had traveled to Rockport from Boston Harbor where it was originally spotted Oct. 8. While a nearby walking footpath allowed countless residents and visitors to view the finback, the beachfront was inaccessible to big town machinery, making it nearly impossible to move the carcass. So, town officials resigned to letting nature take its course on the body.

But when the winds and coastal surge of Tropical Storm Sandy struck Monday night, high tides washed the whale carcass briefly out to sea and then up onto Cape Hedge Beach where work teams could finally access the carcass with heavy machinery and tools.

”It’s just been bashed around so much from the storm,” said Mendy Garron of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. “And this whale has been beaten up pretty good, so a lot of bones are broken.”

Still, there was an upside to the imperfect, decomposing carcass, according to Garron.

Usually experts follow a grueling, careful process and study organs as they proceed, but since this whale had been dead for at least three weeks, the crew was able to accelerate the bone extraction.

”Since this one is so decomposed and some of it was broken, we just separated parts of it to make it a little easier and quicker,” Garron said.

And as the tide inched closer to the whale about noon, the quickened pace was a valuable asset.

Members of the volunteer crew hacked at the mammal, wielding filet style knives about 8 inches long and hand-held hooks.

Sparhawk School senior Emma Quateman was excused from her school in Amesbury today in order to volunteer in helping to extract the bones with her science teacher Dave Taylor. Quateman, wearing blue plastic gloves and knee high galoshes, pulled a rib from a pile of the carcass, as another volunteer cut it the rib free from the blubber. Quateman carved at the bone, working to reveal the white of it, before carrying to a pile of salvaged ribs.

”I’ve been up to here in goo,” Quateman said, pointing to the near top of her black galosh. “It’s disgusting, but it’s fun ... It’s a really fascinating experience.”

Though the whale has been a popular people attraction since first anchoring itself on the Penzance Road beachfront, only some visitors endured the scent in order to witness the science Thursday.

Sarah Kelly walked across the pebbly beach, following excavator and back hoe tracks, toward the whale with her children in tow. Kelly wanted to get a closer look, but her two boys were hesitant to edge in.

”This whale’s really stinky,” 3-year-old Zane Kelly said, while Phineas ran a circle around him, pinching his nose.

”You hate to come out for something like this, but how often does this happen?” Sarah Kelly said. “I want to at least see the bones.”

Gloucester residents Aaron Pinegar and Niles O’Hanley originally stopped by Cape Hedge Beach just to see the bones, but got roped into volunteer roles.

”I just happen to be a fishcutter by trade, so they told me to grab some gloves and a knife,” Pinegar said. “I figured I’d get some practice on a whale today.”

After helping out, the two men observed some of the work. They watched as a handful of volunteers carved blubber and flesh away from a cord of vertebrae, each vertebrae about a square 2 feet.

”Watching this makes my back bones not hurt so bad,” O’Hanley joked.

”I’ve never gagged from the smell of something,” he added, “but that was disgusting.”

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.