A Whale of a Tale
I conducted an ecological survey along the entire Oregon coast from 1970 through 1973. During that time, I met a young Ph.D. student by the name of Bruce Mate. Bruce was studying marine mammals and, along with C. Ted Dyrness and Jerry F. Franklin, eventually (1981) coauthored a book with me titled: "The Natural History of Oregon Coast Mammals."
In the early spring of 1974, I was in Corvallis writing my first draft of the book on an old typewriter with a carbon-paper copy. On the 2nd of May that year, Bruce, who by now was a full-fledged "Dr. Mate," telephoned and said Oregon State Police had called him to salvage an adult, female California gray whale that had beached itself at Waldport, approximate hours drive from Corvallis. For my part, I was grateful to escape the typewriter for a day or two. Beside, I had for years been helping to build the mammal collection at the Puget Sound Museum of Natural History, housed at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, and we needed a whale specimen.
Arriving at the Waldport beach, Bruce and I found the 6O-some-foot whale already decomposing (seen here from the underside)--with a stench to match her size. The tide was almost out when first we saw her, so we knew we would have to work fast if we were to remove her head for the museum. I say this because an incoming tide waits for no one.
Our first act was to acquire olfactory fatigue as fast as possible in order to ignore the awful odor. Our second task was to find the whale's neck, which took some guess work on our part. At this point, our naïveté came to the fore. With what, we asked ourselves and each other, do we sever her head from the rest of her body?
As we inspected the whale, it became apparent that at least one shark had eaten goodly meal out of the whale's belly (see first photo), as well as having taken a single, clean bite toward her rear.
Further inspection revealed barnacles embedded in the whale's blubber. Where they came from, how they embedded themselves, and whether they bothered the whale were all questions that coursed through my mind. Never in my life had I seen anything like these barnacles, and yet, I found a certain beauty in their shape. Only later, once we had managed to cut through the blubber, which was an ordeal in itself, did I come to the conclusion that the whale was most likely ignorant of her hitchhikers, so thick was her blubber.
At this point, our naïveté came to the fore. With what do we sever her head from the rest of her body? Our question was interrupted, however, as spectators began to gather, but thanks to the stench, only the most intrepid approach close enough to clearly see their faces and have them accost us with innumerable questions and two stories, both of which are worth repeating here.
As it turned out, the reason Bruce had been notified by the police had to do with an incident that took place in 1972 or 1973, I don't remember which. Anyway, another California gray whale had beached itself in the same area, and both Bruce and I had been notified. Before we could get to the scene, however, the Oregon Department of Transportation arrived, and panicked when they saw the size of the carcass. At first they attempted to dig a hole large enough and deep enough to bury the whale, but realized that a high tide would simply uncover it. Moreover, they could not dig a hole deep enough to bury the unmitigated stench, which meant myriad complaints form beachgoers. So they devised plan "B"--blowing the whale up. And blow it up they did, with 32 sticks of dynamite!
The results, however, were not what they anticipated. Instead of simply disappearing into millions of small pieces that would be easily washed out to sea or be eaten by such creatures as seagulls, the blubber was liberally distributed far and wide. One man told us how lucky he'd been as he drove along coastal Highway 1O1 that day, because a piece of flying whale blubber had smashed window on the driver's side, whizzed past his face, and exited through the window on the passenger's side. Fortunately, he was unscathed.
Another man then stepped forward and said that his car had been parked at the bank in town, which was somewhat more than a quarter mile away from where the whale had been blown up. When he came out of the bank, he found his the top of his car caved in by another piece of flying whale blubber. But that, he said was just the beginning of his troubles. The insurance company simply refused to believe him. Consequently, he spent six months of his life working to convince his insurance company that, yes indeed, his car had been totaled in a bank parking lot more than a quarter mile from the ocean by a piece of airborne whale blubber.
Well, when we finally quit laughing, it was our turn to amuse the bystanders. First we tried to cut through the blubber with butcher knives, but to no avail; we simply could not make them sharp enough in the first place and then they dulled almost instantly. Next we tried hatchets. Clearly, we'd be able to chop through the whale's flesh with hatchets--no, well how about axes wherewith we could get some real leverage due to their long handles. Once again, laughter erupted as we worked up a sweat watching our axes bounce off of the whale with barely a dent. Finally, we were reduces to scalpel blades--without handles. That took us seven hours of almost non-stop labor.
Because the scalpel blades were so difficult to hold as we cut through the blubber inch by inch, we took turns resting our hands. During one of those sessions, I examined the whale's huge mouth. Never having seen a plankton-feeding whale before, I was curious how they comb plankton out of the water.
As you can see, these whales have a virtual sieve in their mouths, called "baleen." As the whales swim through plankton-rich waters, they take in great mouthfuls of wee, freely floating plants and animals. Then, by pushing their huge tongues upward against the roof of their mouths, they literally stain out the plankton though the baleen sieve (which you can see in the upper jaw--left side of the photograph of the whale's mouth). Now, if you look at the photographs of the baleen, especially the lower one, you see the source of corset stays in times past.
When, at long last, we had cut through all but a few inches of the blubber, a man on a tractor with a front-loading scoop drove down to the whale so he could carry the head up to the parking lot and put in into Bruce's pickup truck. When he saw how tired we were and how little there was left to cut, he told us to move out of the way. He then took a chain from his tractor, looped it under the attached piece of blubber and tied the other ends to the scoop on the front of his tractor. Climbing into the seat, he revved the motor and began backing up in order to pull the head free from the body, but the blubber had no give in it, and, to everyone's amazement, stood the tractor on its nose. So, out came the scalpels blades.
It was seven o'clock in the evening, but still light, by the time we had the whale's head loaded into the pickup, and drove into Waldport. We were barely on a city street when a man drove alongside of us to see what was in the truck. As he came eye-to-eye with the whale's head, and saw that great cetacean orb staring back at him, he jerked the steering wheel so hard he almost drove onto the sidewalk. Even people coming from the opposite direction reacted with a noticeable jerk on the steering wheel, as thought afraid the whale would suddenly take a bite out of them.
Because neither of us had eaten since breakfast, we stopped at a pizza bar for supper. We were no sooner out of the pickup, however, when a disgruntled, snarling, barking dog took after us with a clear intent of ushering us out of town, never to return. Fortunately, the dog's owner dissuaded the beast, which allowed us to enter the pizza bar. But, no sooner had we entered, then the dozen or so patrons promptly gathered their remaining food and executed a hasty retreat.
Upon approaching the counter to order, the owner sniffed once, then sniffed again, and exclaimed with profound displeasure: "What the hell's that God awful smell!"
"I'm afraid it's us," Bruce replied meekly. "We've just finished salvaging the head of a whale for the museum. We've been at it all day."
"Well," snapped the owner, "hurry up and order and then get the hell out of here, you're killing my business with your stink!"
"Sir," I asked hesitantly, "may I use your phone to make a collect, long-distance call to the museum curator?"
"If it'll get you out of here any damn faster, by all means, go ahead!"
"Thank you," I said, as I dialed Murray Johnson's number in Tacoma, Washington.
When Murray answered the phone, I said, "Hi, Murray, this is Chris. I'm in Waldport with Bruce Mate, and guess what? We've got the head of an adult, female California gray whale for the museum. We're on our way to Corvallis with it. Can you have someone come down and get it?" Silence. . .
"Chris," answered Murray with a chuckle, "I thought you'd do this to me someday. Yes, of course, I'll have someone come and get it. You never cease to amaze me."
I had no sooner hung up, when the pizza man barked: "Your damn pizzas are done, now get the hell out of here!"--an order we gladly obeyed!!
By then it was dark, so no one could really see what we had in the bed of the pickup as we drove to Corvallis.
Someone from the museum did, indeed, come the next day and get the whale's head. That was 33 years ago. Although Murray died in 1995, and I have not been to the museum in many years, as far as I know, the whale's skull resides still in the museum, now renamed the Slater Museum of Natural History.
© chris maser 2007. All Rights Reserved.