Blue whale bones recovered from water

Researchers cut the flesh off a dead blue whale that washed up in Gold Beach four years ago. Marine Mammal Institute researchers transported the whale carcass to Newport, where the body was submerged in Yaquina Bay so scavenger fish could clean the bones before the skeleton was lifted from the water. The bones will now be cleaned and re-assembled for display at the new Marine Sciences Initiative building in Newport. (Courtesy photo)

NEWPORT — Researchers at the Hatfield Marine Science Center (HMSC) pulled the submerged bones of a 78-foot blue whale out of Yaquina Bay last week, four years after the deceased whale washed up on the shores of Gold Beach in 2015.

Scientists at the Marine Mammal Institute, a division of HMSC, trekked down to Gold Beach shortly after the dead whale washed ashore to remove flesh from the carcass before transporting the bones up to Yaquina Bay, where they were submerged so scavenger fish could pick the rest of the bones clean. Marine mammal specialists will now preserve and prepare the bones to be displayed publicly. 

A $125,000 gift from an anonymous donor to the Oregon State University Foundation paid for the retrieval and the restoration of the bones. The daylong retrieval of the bones from Yaquina Bay, which totaled 356 in number, wrapped up late on Thursday, Nov. 21. The bones will now be cleaned, and oil and fat will be removed to ensure the bones are preserved. The bones will then be reassembled and put on display at the new Marine Science Institute under construction in Newport. 

However, those overseeing the project might need more to thoroughly clean the bones and prepare them for display.

“We definitely need more,” said Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute. “We don’t know yet how much it will cost, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it takes a quarter of a million dollars.”

A statement from HMSC said it might take up to a year to properly clean and display the bones. Volunteers will help with the cleaning process. 

Researchers involved in the recovery and preservation of the blue whale skeleton said it is extremely rare for a blue whale to wash up on shore. Before this whale was recovered four years ago, the last documented blue whale to wash up on western shores was when Meriwether Lewis and John Clark trekked west from the east coast on their cross-continental quest to be the first white American explorers to make it to the Pacific Ocean. During their time on the West Coast, they encountered a tribe of indigenous people taking edible parts of a dead blue whale that had washed ashore. 

Mate said deep sea animals like whales will often bloat after they pass away far from coastal waters. They then sink to the bottom of the ocean, he said.

“They don’t wash up on the beach,” Mate added. 

This particular whale died after becoming emaciated and then being struck and killed by a ship, Mate said, which is indicative of oceans warming and killing off krill, the blue whale’s main food source. Since krill don’t do well in warm waters, Mate added, much of the ocean’s krill population is dying off.

“Lots of whales were emaciated,” Mate said about his observations on a recent study of whale populations. “Things are changing, and not for the better for some of these animals.”

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