Bowhead whale skeleton surfaces at the Museum of the North

Lee "Boneman" Post mounts a whale vertebra on the steel spine. Post led the process of putting the whale bones back together and designed the engineering that supported the skeleton. (Photo by Roger Topp)

by Alice Bailey

A bowhead whale skeleton is swimming through the lobby of the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

It is rare to see a complete, articulated whale skeleton, where the bones are put together the way they’d function in a living body. This is the only suspended articulated bowhead whale in North America.

Made possible by funding from the Bill Stroecker Foundation, this installation was nearly 60 years in the making and took the passion of numerous engineers, scientists, historians, artists, and Indigenous whalers and educators to complete.

“The bowhead whale captures our imaginations. It is an icon of the Arctic,” said Patrick Druckenmiller, the UAMN director. “This one skeleton showcases the museum’s broader mission to collect, study and share knowledge about Alaskan natural history and its diverse cultures.”

The Iñupiaq word for bowhead whale is aġviq. This bowhead was harvested by Iñupiaq whaling captains Arnold Brower Sr. and Sam Talaak in 1963 as part of the traditional autumn hunt.

“The skeleton is a huge opportunity to share the ways in which the bowhead whale is so integral to our way of life,” said Iñupiaq educator Jana Pausauraq Harcharek. “Many visitors come with preconceptions, so being able to share the relationship we have with the bowhead whale with folks who don’t necessarily understand the cultural significance is a great opportunity.”

The entire community participates in activities surrounding whaling so that the knowledge will be passed down to future generations. “The bowhead whale has been the center of our cultural, nutritional, and spiritual well-being for thousands of years,” said Ron Brower Sr., who is the nephew of the whaling captain who harvested the animal, the founding director of the Iñupiat Heritage Center and a former UAF faculty member.

Traditional ecological knowledge has greatly contributed to the scientific understanding of these animals. Western scientists did not know that whales could travel under the ice until Indigenous hunters told them why they grossly underestimated the population.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, commercial whalers traveled to Alaska’s Arctic and decimated the bowhead population. In 1978, there were only an estimated 4,765 bowheads left in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas.

Fortunately, the population has recovered through sustainable harvest and conservation. Through cooperative management by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, today this population is about 16,800 animals and increasing by 3.4% annually.

“A lot of the hunters are driving the questions about the changes that are happening to whales today,” said Lara Horstmann, who is the chair of the Department of Marine Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

Harvesting the whale

This particular bowhead whale was a young male harvested near Point Barrow during the autumn hunt. Then it was towed to Utqiaġvik, one of 11 Alaska communities that practice whaling today.

“The highest honor is for a whale to give itself to a crew, who then shows gratitude and is able to share the whale to the community. The expression of gratitude has remained constant over the centuries,” said Harcharek.

While many museums bleach skeletons and cover up imperfections, museum staff wanted to leave the bones looking as natural as possible. “The story of the harvest can be told as evidenced in the skeleton,” said Aren Gunderson, who is the UAMN Mammals Collection Manager and the curator of the exhibition.

The skeleton shows where knives, uluat, and saws were used to butcher the whale for the meat, skin, blubber, and baleen. The flippers were distributed and parts of the tail were reserved for a whaling festival. The tongue, organs, and parts of the intestines were enjoyed as delicacies, and the membrane covering the liver was likely used for making drums, or qiḷautit.

The remaining bones were left on the beach, where they were gnawed on by Arctic foxes and polar bears.

Journey to Fairbanks

A scientist who was working at the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Utqiaġvik began cleaning the remaining tissue off of the skeleton.

In 1965, he arranged to have the bones of the body flown to the university museum in Fairbanks. The skull was too big to fit on the plane, so it was left on the beach until 1969, when the Air National Guard agreed to transport it in one of its cargo planes.

The skull was put on display in 1980, when the museum opened a new building on campus. Slowly dripping oil, it was on display in the Gallery of Alaska for 40 years.

In the early 2000s, a major renovation transformed the museum into the dramatic architecture we see today. Architect Joan Sorrano designed the interior walls to elicit the feeling of being in a crevasse or a space where marine mammals could swim through the ice.

“The building was intended to make a visual statement. You have to have a really interesting, dynamic building to represent Alaska,” said Aldona Jonaitis, the museum’s former director.

At the time, there were discussions about installing hanging hooks for suspending a whale in the heart of the building. But it was thanks to UAF alumnus William G. Stroecker (1920-2010) and the Stroecker Foundation that this long-standing idea was finally made possible.

“In many ways, the bowhead completes the building,” said Link Olson, curator of the museum’s mammal collection. “It will be the crown jewel of our museum.”

Putting a whale back together

The UAMN brought in Lee Post to lead the bone articulation process, which was a feat of creativity, engineering, science and technology.

Post is a homegrown Alaskan artist and scientist who got his start assembling skeletons at the Pratt Museum in Homer. He has published some of the only manuals on articulating skeletons, which feature his exquisite hand-drawn illustrations describing how the bones and hardware fit together.

Whale bones are notoriously oily and before they could be assembled they needed to be cleaned. “The bones were dirty, really dirty, and saturated with oil. There was a lot of dried tissue, so that took a long time to clean up and make them not stinky. That process was supposed to include a lot of students, but when COVID happened, we weren’t allowing more than one person in a lab,” said Gunderson.

The bones soaked in bubbling baths of warm water flavored by chunks of rotten sperm whale to keep the bacteria happy. After four months, the skeleton was completely clean without the use of any chemicals.

So what about the flippers, parts of the tail, and other bones that were given away during the harvest?

The team used a combination of 3D scans from other bowhead bones in the collection, mirror images of the skeleton’s intact bones, and scans of bones from other museums to complete the skeleton.

The scans were sent to 3D printers in Canada where they were printed out of white plastic. Artists Gail Priday and Mareca Guthrie painted the artificial bones to match the real ones, and the result is so authentic that even the museum curators can’t tell the difference.

Whale biology 

As Horstmann stood beneath the skeleton, she said, “There is something so humbling about these massive animals.”

She explained that bowheads are some of the longest-living mammals in the world. Hunters have found their ancestors’ stone harpoon tips embedded in blubber dating back to the 1880s and studies suggest that bowheads can live to be 200 years old.

The skull alone weighs 900 pounds and is one-third of the length of the skeleton.

Whales use their massive, triangular-shaped heads to bash through the ice from below so that they can breathe. The bones resemble a bow, which inspired the English name for the animal.

Fused vertebrae hold the animal’s head in place so that the 45-ton whale can propel itself through the water more efficiently. Arching 14-foot-long upper jaws support baleen that strain hundreds of gallons of plankton skimmed from the water each day. And the flippers look strikingly similar to human hands.

A resource for all

“It’s my hope that, through this exhibit, the Indigenous students will recognize that they are Indigenous wherever they are. The museum of the North offers the opportunity to connect with their material and cultural heritage,” said Sean Asiqłuq Topkok, who is a UAF faculty member and chair of the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies

Horstmann is excited to use the whale skeleton for her marine mammal biology classes and believes that it will be a valuable resource for UAF courses in anatomy, ecology, engineering, history, Indigenous studies, paleontology, and studio art.

The whale will also be seen by many people from outside the UAF community, too. Over 80,000 visitors visit the museum each year, including 3,000 K-12 students from Fairbanks.

A virtual grand opening celebrating the installation of the skeleton begins at noon on June 7 on the museum’s YouTube channel. An accompanying installation in the museum’s special exhibition gallery called “Perspective: Ways to see a whale,” includes artwork and hands-on activities such as looking at a bowhead whale’s food under a microscope, lifting a rib bone, and listening to what a whale hears underwater.

A free audio guide and other elements of the exhibition will be available long-term in a virtual format for those unable to visit the museum, which is open seven days a week during the summer.

“The whale gave itself to the hunters,” Topkok said. “And now the hunters have given the remains that are the whale to the museum for future generations.”

Alice Bailey is the Public Information Officer & R/V Sikuliaq Science Liaison. This story was originally printed in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer on June 6th, 2021. On the cover: A Story 60 years in the making, a complete bowhead whale skeleton is now at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. It is the only suspended bowhead whale skeleton in North America. Photo by Alice Bailey.