Don’t screw up.
That was the unspoken message to a group of Stadium High School students tasked Wednesday with using a drill press to penetrate the vertebrae of a yearling humpback whale that washed ashore in Gig Harbor last December.
The 15 students are responsible for assembling the whale skeleton that was unearthed this summer after being buried for six months in horse manure in a Gig Harbor field. When the students are finished, the whale will hang from the historic trusses of the Foss Waterway Seaport museum on the Tacoma waterfront.
Students, many who had never used heavy machinery before, hesitantly approached the press. One slip and they could ruin the skeleton, or lose a finger.
“This is all one big puzzle, if you break something it’s not going to fit,” said 16-year-old Dawson Bell.
Kenna Taylor, 17, prepared her group to be the first ones to drill into the skeleton.
“The stakes are high,” she said.
Elizabeth McInnis, 17, was the first to puncture the bone. The senior cautiously tested her group’s measurements, lightly bringing the whirring drill down to make sure everything was level.
This is all one big puzzle, if you break something it’s not going to fit.
Dawson Bell, 16, Stadium High School student
After a quick inspection she applied more pressure, this time pushing the drill into the vertebrae cap. Wisps of powdered bone filled the air as her classmates watched intently.
“I didn’t really feel any give, it was really soft,” McInnis said when she finished. “I was expecting something harder than that.”
For the past month, the students have spent two days a week after school at the Seaport museum. They are part of a partnership between Tacoma Public Schools and the Seaport aimed at giving them hands-on experience in marine biology.
Stadium biology and marine biology teacher Phil Hertzog oversees the students as they work with Seaport educational programming volunteers to reassemble the skeleton.
“If they want to go into marine biology, they have to get experience like this. They need to start building their résumés,” Hertzog said.
Students have participated in the necropsy of a harbor seal and been asked to determine how the humpback whale died based on forensic information from its necropsy.
In September, the students were given the vertebrae, ribs and skull and told to piece together the whale’s skeleton on the Seaport museum floor. The only pieces that were labeled were parts of the spine that needed to be glued with epoxy. Because the whale was young when it died, its vertebrae were not fused as they would have been in an adult.
We’ve tried to make sure they’re involved in all discussions as much as they can be.
Jan Adams, Foss Waterway Seaport director of education
Marine biology and oceanography instructor Rus Higley is helping with the skeleton assembly. Higley manages the Marine Science and Technology Center at Highline College and has experience piecing together a whale skeleton. Six years ago, he was part of a group that put together a gray whale skeleton at the Foss Waterway Seaport. The whale now hangs at the center at Highline.
Despite Higley’s guidance, responsibility falls to the students to fit the pieces together and determine how the whale will be displayed. The students will work with structural engineers to hang the 23-foot-long whale from the museum’s trusses.
A metal rod will be inserted through the 2-inch holes the students drilled last week creating the backbone (literally) of the skeletal display. Smaller holes will be drilled for wires to hold the vertebrae in place and connect other bones.
Outside experts in fields varying from engineering to marine biology are lined up to talk with the students. Last week engineers spoke about weight distribution and how to account for external factors such as wind and snow when designing a building.
“We’ve tried to make sure they’re involved in all discussions as much as they can be,” said Jan Adams, the Seaport’s director of education.
The students are on track to have the whale skeleton assembled and hung by December.
“This is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially in high school,” said 16-year-old Madison Rodriguez.
Want to see the whale?
The public is invited to visit the Foss Waterway Seaport museum on Wednesdays from 2:30-4:40 p.m. to see the students working on the whale. Students will answer questions about their work. Foss Waterway Seaport, 705 Dock Street, Tacoma.