- To Flense
Unless you have a professional interest, it's possible that the only bodies you've been intimate with, have scrutinised, have been the bodies of lovers or children. The act of unhurried, unmediated examination has hitherto been an act of love.—Kathleen Jamie, Findings
On May 23, 2017, at 5:00 p.m., Ranger Gonzales found a dead gray whale floating at Twin Harbors State Park, south of Westport, near Bonge Beach, the waves pushing it ashore.
It's not a rare occurrence, whales found on Washington's beaches. Many are juvenile grays, emaciated, unable to make their long migration along the West Coast. There's the occasional fin whale. In 2015, a Baird's beaked whale; in 2018, a 31-foot juvenile humpback out on the peninsula. The Makah tribe claimed it and then feasted on it during their annual fall festival.
I read of this gray in the Seattle Times, and I begin to wonder if I might retrieve its skeleton for my university. I imagine bringing students to it when teaching Moby-Dick, theologians bringing students when teaching Jonah. I imagine biologists referencing its pelvis when teaching evolution, ecologists using the necropsy to discuss conservation of our great whales. I imagine art students drawing the intricate shadows cast by the bones' swoops and curves.
I call Kristin Wilkinson, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's stranding coordinator for Washington and Oregon, to see about obtaining permits. Whether dead or alive, whales are federally protected, and [End Page 35] though I'm expecting bureaucracy, the permit process is surprisingly easy.
After a few phone calls and emails, I'm granted federal and state permission to flense a whale and retrieve its bones.
If a whale dies at sea—as orcas often do—and sinks, the carcass becomes a "whale fall" (what a beautiful term, the whale having fallen both literally and metaphorically), its body an immediate feast and its bones a home all sorts of deep-sea organisms will live in for decades. And if the whale washes ashore on a remote beach, authorities will leave it to rot, the stench of its flesh not bothering anyone, the "winds and currents strong enough to flense whales and scatter their bones." But if that whale washes ashore near people (like the humpback in 2016 at Seattle's Fauntleroy ferry terminal, or the gray on West Seattle's Arroyo Beach in 2010), it must be disposed of. The public complains.
So what do you do with, say, a 43-foot gray whale, some 50,000 pounds, like the one washed ashore in Everett in 2019? Some are buried above the high-tide line; some are pushed back to sea. (That one was towed to Camano Island.) Others have been towed out to McNeil Island in the lower Puget Sound. The island houses a penitentiary. At one time, it held Robert Franklin Stroud, the "Birdman of Alcatraz," but whale bones now litter its beaches. The state and the prison don't like the island being a dumping ground, so Wilkinson is always searching for other places to lay whales to rest. It's hard, since no landfills in Washington will accept a whale carcass.
She advises me to contact Rus Higley. Running the Marine Science and Technology Center, Higley has built three whale skeletons. I call him and tell him I've a whale and don't know how to proceed from here. Though he's never before met me, Higley wants to go to the beach as soon as we can. He's giddy.
My original plan is to retrieve the full skeleton. When I tell the university's facilities manager, he says, "I don't get to decide what you professors bring in here, but if you bring in a whale, I'll find a way to hang it." Over the next two days, Higley and I talk often. Each conversation is at least an hour. "We can borrow knives from Jessie," he says. "We'll need a sharpening stone. You'll want to wear rain gear. Be prepared to throw it all away—anything the oil touches will be rancid." He walks...