Waiting for the perfect fit

Peter Moe to build a skeleton in Eaton

Courtesy of Krister Persing
English Professor Peter Moe gathered a crew of eight to extract a dozen bones from a whale that washed up at Twin Harbors State Park in late May earlier this year.

Assistant Professor of English Peter Moe’s fascination with whales started when he was a young boy.

Having grown up in landlocked Spokane, Washington, he remembers being drawing pictures of whales in elementary school, for some reason enamored with the sea. Despite his love of the ocean and whales,  Moe did not see his first live whale until he was 23 years old, while in Santa Barbara, California.

He was on a boat when a whale surfaced on the starboard [right] side. He stumbled across the deck, startled at the noise and how loud it was.

“I remember being in awe at the size and power of these animals, and the fact that they’re just so hidden by the ocean,” Moe explained.

Now, his fascination stems from how huge these animals are and how little people know about them, adding, “I think it puts us in our place as humans.”

But with the whale population diminishing due to hunting, boat traffic, less food, etc.; Moe wants to bring to attention that these creatures need help. So when he noticed a large, empty space near the ceiling in Eaton Hall, he got an idea.

Back when the science building was being built (construction ran between 2001 and 2003) there was talk of filling the space with offices, but the architect left it open. Bruce Congdon, the dean of the division of STEM and Social Science, explained that the architect left the open space, and said that someday, someone could hang a whale up there.

Now, roughly 15 years later, Moe wants to do just that.

A whale washed up at Twin Harbors State Park in late May earlier this year, a whale Moe could potentially get bones from and build a skeleton.

But to get a whole skeleton out of a whale is a big project, as Moe said he later found out. So Congdon told Moe to go out to the whale and treat it as a test run.

Moe started making phone calls and getting all the necessary permits from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, but as he was getting these permits, Moe remembered being told that he needed to go talk to Rus Higley, a biologist at Highline College.

Together, with a crew of eight people, Moe and Higley worked to extract as many bones as they could from the half-sunken whale.

Courtesy of Krister Persing
Because of the sand and layers of blubber, Moe [right] needed to sharpen knives roughly every five minutes.

“So we’re out here, working on this whale, and it just stunk,” Moe said.

“People have a very sanitized view of death,” Moe said. At funeral homes, the dead are taken care of: washed, embalmed, dressed, etc. Working on this whale was what Moe considered his first unfiltered encounter with death.

“You could smell it,” Moe continued. “There’s a smell to death . . . it was like a punch to the face.”

They worked for about five hours, cutting away blubber, careful not to move the carcass around too much lest someone got stuck underneath.

In the end, they were able to gather a jawbone, six ribs, two vertebrae, two chevron bones, both hip bones, the right shoulder blade, a flipper and a sheet of baleen, the sheet sitting on a  shelf in Moe’s office.

Now Moe is in the process of cleaning the bones. If bones were simply hung up, Moe explained, oil would drip everywhere.

Instead, the bones are buried so that the soil, bugs and worms can leech out the oil, a process that can take up to year or longer. After, they will go on a roof where the sun and rain will bleach them and make them “shiny and clean,” Moe said.

With the process underway, Congdon has given Moe the greenlight to try for a full-scale whale skeleton. He is now on a waiting list with NOAA since they are in charge of whales, which are firmly protected whether dead or alive.

“We’re not going out and killing a whale,” he said, laughing. “I hope that’s clear.”

Moe’s plan is to wait for a 25-to-35 foot whale and gather a team of about 20 people to work eight or more hours to get all the bones. Then the cleaning process will start once again.

When everything is ready to go, Higley has agreed to teach a summer course where students will build the skeleton. There may even be a few days in the course where Moe might talk about whales, Moby Dick, or have a theology professor talk about Job 41, a passage about the leviathan, giving the course a humanities component.

To pull everything off, including the work to extract a full skeleton and put it together, Moe estimates he needs $30,000. This money would come from different sources and donors, from alumni, biologists, former faculty or anyone else interested in the sciences at SPU.

Moe hopes all this money and all this work will convey a message of conservation and understanding. People have been flensing – the technical term for removing blubber from a whale – for hundreds of years, and for hundreds of years it has been an act of aggression and conquest.

“We are partaking in the same act that’s led to the extinction to so many whales, but what’s so cool about it is that the reason we are flensing is as an act of conservation,” Moe explained. “It’s going to be a means of education and preservation of these animals. It was cool to be reclaiming the act of flensing for the betterment of these animals.”

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