June 06, 2012

A homecoming for Sooke the orca

Puget Sound Southern Resident orcas swim off the shore
of San Juan Island in August 2011. (Photo: Cathy Britt)
The return of the J, K and L Pod Southern Resident orcas to their home waters near the San Juan Islands this week came on the heels of another homecoming of sorts. The Burke returned the skeletal remains of Sooke (also known as Victoria), a former member of the L pod, to her new home at the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. 

When three-year-old Sooke (L-112) washed ashore near Long Beach, WA in early February,researchers examined her remains to try and determine how she died. Shortly after, the Whale Museum began cleaning her skeleton to make it a permanent part of the museum.
Some of Sooke's 12'3" skeleton was submerged in the Salish Sea so fish and other sea life could naturally clean the remaining thin layer of flesh from the bones. But some bones, including the skull, pectoral fins and end of the tail, are too delicate to clean this way. So, the Whale Museum turned to the Burke - and the unique cleaning abilities of our beetle colony.
Sooke's skull needed to dry for 2 weeks prior to being
cleaned by our beetle colony. (Photo: Jeff Bradley)

Jeff Bradley, mammalogy collections manager here at the Burke, first gathered biological tissue samples from Sooke to add to our Genetic Resources collection. These samples preserve a rich array of information about the species and will be available for scientists to study for years to come.

He then let Sooke's remains dry for two weeks before placing them in our beetle case, where our colony of about 10,000 dermestid beetles went to work carefully cleaning the bones.

After about three weeks of beetle cleaning, Sooke's skeleton was ready for the next step: balancing the oil levels. Whale bones, especially the delicate skull, have a naturally large amount of lipids giving them an oily look and feel. These oils play an important role in the whale's ability to hear, but some of the oil must be carefully removed to help preserve the skeleton.
Jeff Bradley with Sooke's lower jaw (mandible)
on San Juan Island. (Photo: Cathy Britt)

It's a tricky process that involves soaking the bones in a weak ammonia solution, but it's one that Jeff has mastered over the years. The result? Sooke's bones have just the right amount of oil to keep them from deteriorating, allowing them to become a permanent part of the Whale Museum's collection. 

Several weeks after Sooke’s remains first came to the Burke, Jeff carefully loaded up the clean bones and traveled back to San Juan Island, where he was greeted by eager orca lovers interested in learning about her skeleton. See photos of Sooke's bones after they've been cleaned.

Although Sooke's life ended at a young age, having her skeletal remains at the Whale Museum and tissue samples at the Burke provides opportunities to learn more about these magnificent animals, and raise awareness of the increasingly destructive pressures they face in their natural habitat.

By Cathy Britt, Digital Communications