The bowhead whale was caught by Arnold Brower Sr., Sam Taalak, and the ABC whaling crew on September 26, 1963 during the fall season subsistence hunt in the western Beaufort Sea. The average temperatures in the waning days of September are typically between 25 and 32F. Mid to late September is the sea ice minimum. The annual summer warming and melt at the southern extents of the ice pack were about to start being beaten back by the lowering temperatures of another Arctic fall. We don’t have satellite data to tell us how the ice pack appeared at the time, but we can guess there was open water across much of the Beaufort Shelf and especially nearer to shore.

That’s not to say the onshore winds in summer can’t carry ice floes right to the beach.

The whale was captured near Cooper Island, east of Point Barrow, and would have been towed by powerboat around the point into the Chukchi Sea on the northwestern flank of Alaska. There it was beached at Utqiaġvik (then Barrow).

The fall whaling season takes advantage of bowhead whales returning from the eastern Beaufort Sea north of the Yukon. The whales in fall, in the majority, aim west and then south into the Bering where they overwinter among the broken pack ice, the only pacific whales to overwinter in the ice.

Spring whaling at Utqiaġvik in April and May takes advantage of the shore-fast ice, the narrow offshore leads that many whales use to migrate westward, and quiet, paddled umiaq, the Inupiaq seal-skin boats. Fall whaling relies more on open water craft, historically with sail and now almost exclusively with powerboats that can cover the miles of water north and east where whales might be found. The sharp reduction in summer sea ice, caused by climate changes over the last 40 years, has forced hunters to travel farther and farther from shore.

In 1965, Floyd Durham traveled to Utqiaġvik to collect whale specimens for the L.A. Country Museum of Natural History, as well as other institutions. As part of this effort, he sent much of one whale skeleton to the University of Alaska Museum. Most of these bones were sent to Fairbanks in 1965, however, those of the skull, were transported in 1969 on a National Guard cargo plane.

The skull and many of the smaller bones lived outside in the forest behind the museum for many years, while much of the remaining meat was scavenged or rotted away. The skull was cleaned and brought inside the museum in 1980 where it remained on display in the Gallery of Alaska until 2020. Throughout this time and despite time in the forest and successive cleaning, it continued to drip oil.

In summer of 2020, the skull was removed from the gallery and rolled into the museum parking lot for one last cleaning before articulation of the skeleton began in Spring of 2021. The other collected bones from this whale were gathered together and cleaned in giant maceration tanks on the UAF campus, an aromatic process where the bones spent months in a warm bacterial broth of circulated water.

The whale’s bones began to come together in February 2021, when the museum’s auditorium, already otherwise closed due to the pandemic, was given over to the purpose of articulating and documenting the articulation of the 44’ long, 1 ton skeleton. There, over a period of several months, the bones were repaired and sealed, and bolted and glued and threaded together into a skeleton, complete except for 78 bones that had not been collected or were too badly damaged to include in the reassembly. The whales mandibles, on display outside the museum had deteriorated too much over the decades, and the flippers and whale’s tail hadn’t be collected in the first place. These missing bones were re-created by laser-scanning the bones of the other whales, scaling them for this whale, and then 3D printing, articulating, and painting them such that unless viewed up close, the replicas could not be distinguished from the originals. 

While the skeleton was assembled in the museum’s auditorium, next door, scaffolding was erected for the several months work on the lobby ceiling. Sprinkler heads and light fixtures were re-routed, and mounts were added and connected to the museum’s own iron skeleton in order to hold the weight of the articulated specimen.

The whale skeleton, completed in June 2021, was suspended from the ceiling of the museum’s lobby nearly 60 years after it was harvested in the Beaufort Sea. Accompanying the whale skeleton are interpretive panels on the museum’s third floor, as well as a temporary exhibit about all-things bowhead on the first. Such an effort would never have been possible without the involvement of diverse vocations, from whale hunting, to museum collection, to structural engineering and architecture, to project and collections management, to museum exhibit preparation, installation, carpentry and articulation, to computer graphic modeling, replica fabrication and fine arts painting, to exhibit and graphic design and software coding, to project development and fundraising, to machine and electronics shop work, to lighting design, plumbing and general construction, to media production and photography, to welding, writing, marine science, evolutionary biology and geophysics, to map, furniture and mount making, to interactive design and large format printing.

Here are a few of the photographs I took of the articulation process. For the accompanying video, visit UAMN’s You Tube channel. To visit tand sit with the whale, come see it suspended in the lobby of the UA Museum of the North.

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