Students, faculty, and staff help unload the bones of a 55-foot fin whale at the loading dock of the Umbeck Science-Mathematics Center. Photo by Peter Bailley '74

Where did you get the idea to bring a whale to Knox?

I've spent a lot of time at marine labs and one that I've spent a lot of time at is Shoals Marine Lab in Maine, which is run by Cornell and the University of New Hampshire. I teach out there most summers and in my time there I’ve bumped elbows with people who are part of the Northeast Marine Mammal Stranding & Disentanglement Network, which is a group of institutions that are all networked under a federal umbrella so that when a marine mammal washes up on the beach, they get notified and take care of it. 

In the courses I teach in Maine, we deal with dolphins and seals, and I brought a couple dolphin skeletons back to Knox after getting federal permits through this network. I was talking with a member of the network and she said that there are a lot of other specimens available if I need them for teaching. That was about the time that we found out that the SMC [Umbeck Science-Mathematics Center] renovation was going to happen, and I had the idea—after working with these six and seven foot dolphins—how about we get a big one. 

I applied for a federal permit (which takes a long time) and eventually got it. The federal permit basically says I, at Knox, have legal access to possess a marine mammal and, in this case, it was a large whale. It was not specified what species, just that it's legal for Knox to have it. 

How did Knox get this whale?

I set out trying to find a large marine mammal—a large, dead whale—and talked with people in the network and they said, sure, we're happy to put your name on a list. The way they usually do it is to call when a whale beaches up and we show up within 24 hours with at least 10 volunteers to help take care of carting it away, which includes all of the soft tissue as well as the bones. Being in Illinois on the trimester system teaching, that's not really very tractable.

I then heard about this specific fin whale that had died in a ship strike. It washed up on a beach in New England and the community there didn't have the resources to deal with it, so they let it wash back out to sea. It washed into another harbor, washed back out, then washed into about three or four harbors before it eventually ended up in New Hampshire after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. That's when Massachusetts Wildlife came in and dealt with it. They dissected off all the flesh and then people from the Seacoast Science Center, which is a nonprofit outreach and education public museum in Rye, New Hampshire, spearheaded the effort to get it buried in compost, which is a pretty classic way of cleaning whale bones. 

The whale rotted in compost for about two years, at which point the bones were clean. They recollected it, but the challenge was that a whale of that size [55 feet] is difficult to house and it turned out their building was not quite big enough. They also, in that interim, got ahold of a juvenile humpback whale that was much smaller and fit inside of their space. So they were left with this big whale that they put on display outside. They mounted the jaws and put the bones on pallets on the grounds in front of the building. That made Massachusetts Wildlife not that happy, because it was subjected to the elements. In the span of 20 years, it was going to break down and not be useful. 

I contacted the science center and I told them that I'd like to procure the whale. They said no. So I talked to them about Knox's mission of access and how we're going to have this collaborative approach with the art and theatre departments. I told them about how we're about to start the renovation of the science building and how we'd like the whale to be the centerpiece there, and we'd like to involve students in the reconstruction process. We have so many first generation students, and we have this great diverse student base, and people from all kinds of places and cultures, and so many of them haven't had the chance to see anything anywhere close to this kind of magnitude.

After about a month, they decided to pass it on to us because we were going to make great use of this incredible specimen. Then last summer, I showed up there with a U-Haul and we loaded it up and then I drove it back to Knox. The whale now resides in a basement lab in the biology wing of SMC.