Bolinas park and school hope for blue whale specimens

David Briggs
For Bay Area scientists and educators, the 80-foot, adult female blue whale that washed up on Bolinas Beach after being hit by a ship at the end of May continues to be of great interest. Fourteen institutions—four educational organizations and 10 scientific projects—have already received parts of the whale’s body. The Bolinas School and the downtown park may end up with some of its bones, once they obtain permits from NOAA. Above, the mandible, the lower part of the whales jaw.   

Rising out of the sand, the bones of the blue whale on Agate Beach are still layered with ribbed flesh, flaky and graying in some places, thick and greasy in others. Its putrid smell is all but forgotten, and even the remaining, scattered gulls seem apathetic. 

But for the scientists and educators of the larger Bay Area, the 80-foot, adult female whale that washed up on Bolinas Beach after being hit by a ship at the end of May, continues to be of great interest. 

Fourteen different institutions—four educational organizations and 10 scientific projects—have already received parts of the whale’s body. The Point Reyes National Seashore has obtained some of the baline (whale teeth) for educational purposes, and Stanford is examining it to better understand hydrodynamics. The University of California, Davis has an eye for research on whale vision. 

In Bolinas, both the school and the Mesa Park board are collaborating with Maureen Flannery, the ornithology and mammalogy collection manager of the California Academy of Sciences, to obtain permits from NOAA for some of the bones. There is a strict permitting process, as the bones are technically owned by the Interior Department and would be leased to these entities on a permanent loan. 

“The bones are essentially invaluable, but you need a research or educational permit in order to steward them,” Barbie Halaska, a research assistant at the Marine Mammal Center, said. She added that many of the bones were splintered from the ship strike. 

Bolinas School is currently in line for a vertebra, some baline and a scapula, and the park for the mandible. 

“The community has been really fantastic in terms of responding to the whale,” Ms. Flannery said. “Often if you can bury or remove the carcass, the land managers want to do it. Bolinas has been very accepting [of the fact] that, because of where it landed on the beach, we couldn’t do either. Giving the community bones would be a great way to make the whale available to future generations and to thank the town of Bolinas.”

Still, the Mesa Park Board and the academy are investigating whether or not they can actually get the mandible—which may weigh up to 2,000 pounds—off of the beach. If they can, the board would install the mandible in the downtown park, along with an interpretative sign about the whale. 

Don Jolley, a science and math teacher at Bolinas School, has been working with the academy and was the one who first expressed interest in the whale for the school. He is no novice at collaborating with institutions to obtain the skeletons of creatures that wash up in the protected lands surrounding school. To date, the school has the entire skeletons of two orcas, two gray whales (and adult and a yearling), a Cuvier’s beaked whale, a pygmy sperm whale and a common dolphin, among other creatures’ remains.

Some of these specimens are on display in Mr. Jolley’s classroom, hanging from the ceiling; others are in storage. Over the years, students in different classes have had the opportunity to salvage bones, bury them while they dry out and recover them, and also assemble and reassemble them. Many of the skeletons have been shipped nationwide, benefitting students in many different institutions. 

The permitting process for the school was delayed after the academy expressed interest in giving Bolinas-Stinson the flipper but was unsure if that would be possible. Yet the flipper, which had dislodged from the body, later disappeared, likely out to sea. 

Scientists were able to match this particular blue whale with information in a photo database due to an odd marking on her fluke—or tail. The female was first identified off California in 1999 and was subsequently seen in 11 different years, mostly in the Santa Barbara channel. A few years ago, she was seen with a calf, though Ms. Flannery said the necropsy revealed the whale was neither pregnant nor rearing a calf at the time of its death. 

As posted on Agate Beach, unauthorized possession or transport of any marine mammal parts—bones, tissues, teeth—is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In the case of this blue whale, it is also a violation of the Endangered Species Act. Violators could face a penalty of up to $5,000.