November 15, 2006

Remains of Sunken Whale Skeleton Resurface

The cranium of a whale skeleton that has been on the ocean bottom near the San Juan Islands since November 2006 (see video footage below) finally resurfaced on Sunday, June 1, after a long, exhausting weekend for a team of University of Washington Friday Harbor Lab divers and vessel operators.

Bringing the 9 1/2-foot-long cranium of a large male fin whale to the surface was a precarious and challenging task. Divers spent two days preparing straps and lines before they were finally able to retrieve the large, unwieldy object and hoist it onto the deck of the Centennial, a UW research vessel. The other pieces of the skeleton, including two jaw bones, remain on the seafloor in the San Juan Islands. According to Jim Kenagy, Curator of Mammals at the Burke, this procedure is a novel attempt to add to the museum’s mammalogy research collection, which already contains over 50,000 specimens.

Fin whale cranium is retrieved after eighteen months on the sea floor.
Photo by Robert C. Williams
The 54-foot carcass was initially recovered near Everett, Washington, in autumn 2006, after the animal had died from being struck by a large ship. The Burke Museum partnered with the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs to employ an innovative method for preparing the skeleton.

In November 2006, the recovered whale was towed by the UW’s Centennial to the San Juan Islands. A research group, led by David Duggins of the Friday Harbor Labs, sank the carcass to a depth of about 120 feet. The whale remained on the bottom, where it naturally decomposed, for 18 months. This is the first Burke whale specimen to be obtained by these unusual means.

Dr. David Duggins, a Friday Harbor Labs research scientist, winching up the fin whale cranium. Photo by Robert C. Williams

The sinking of the whale carcass provided marine scientists a special opportunity to investigate the natural process of decomposition and nutrient recycling that occurs on the ocean floor. Dr. Craig Smith of the University of Hawaii leads a team of researchers who track this ecological process.

On Sunday, the whale’s cranium was brought to the surface by a dive team led by UW diving safety officer Pema Kitaeff. The divers included local San Juan Islander Kurt Long and three others from Western Washington University’s Shannon Point Marine Center: Nate Schwarck, Karl Mueller, and Robert C. Williams.

The UW Friday Harbor team has used a ROV (remotely operated vehicle), underwater photography, and divers to document the complexity and dynamics of the ecological community that has benefited from the decomposition of the fin whale.
Vertebrae of a fin whale. Researchers sank the deceased whale's carcass in order for it to be cleaned naturally by biological organisms on the sea floor.  Photo by Robert C. Williams

Video ~ Behind the Scenes: The Fin Whale
Curator of Mammals, Jim Kenagy, narrates the experimental sinking of a deceased fin whale and subsequent underwater exploration to the same site.  To watch the video, click here.