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Salvaged humpback whale bones arrive at natural history museum

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
The whale skull in its new temporary home in a shed at the Delaware Museum of Natural History

The skull of a young humpback whale that washed up on Port Mahon Beach last spring is now being prepared for exhibit at a museum in New Castle County.

The roughly six-foot-wide skull sat decomposing on Pickering Beach for about a year before Delaware Museum of Natural History staff pressure-washed it, then drove it and a few other bones up to the Greenville-area museum.

Several “arm” bones and vertebrae now sit in a museum freezer, and the skull and one jaw bone are being stored in a shed the museum bought just for the specimen.

Credit Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
The museum is storing smaller bones from the whale in a freezer

Staff now turn to the task of cleaning the bones of any last bits of flesh and oil or insects.

“The two general ways you can do that is freeze it, but we don’t have a freezer big enough to do that here,” said Director of Collections Dr. Jean Woods. “Or you can submerge the whole thing in water, and we don’t have a pool at the museum. So we’re still working on how best to get that done.”

Woods says it will likely be one to two years before the bones are ready for display.

“Nobody here has ever prepared a whale," she said.

The museum is also awaiting a report from the Marine Education, Research & Rehabilitation Institute which could reveal the sex and age of the whale as well as its cause of death.

The whale appears to have died in what has been called an Unusual Mortality Event for humpbacks along the East Coast beginning in 2016.

Delaware Museum of Natural History Executive Director Halsey Spruance is excited to put part of the whale’s skeleton in the museum because he says it tells a “Delaware-centric story.”

“Whether you live in Pickering Beach or Rehoboth or Bethany or Wilmington, right out there in the Delaware Bay is a whole bunch of biodiversity that we’re not necessarily aware [of] because we can’t see it right away,” said Spruance. “But it’s there, and we want to tell people about it because it’s worth protecting.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), no humpback whales have washed up on Delaware beaches so far in 2018.

Five humpback whale carcasses turned up in the First State in 2016 and 2017. They were part of what NOAA has declared an Unusual Mortality Event for humpbacks along the East Coast beginning in 2016. Since then, 81 humpback whales have been reported stranded between Maine and Florida.

NOAA is still working to determine the cause of the Unusual Mortality Event.

Because of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Woods says the museum had to obtain a salvage permit from DNREC to collect the whale bones. She says that under the Act, collecting any of the remaining whale bones on Pickering Beach as an individual is a federal offense. 

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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