Whale bones inspire community

Daniel Rury

Featured image: The whale used for dissection is lifted from the ocean. Photo Courtesy of Daniel Wright

Call him Peter Wayne Moe. About two years ago—May 26, 2017 more precisely—a gray whale washed ashore. Since then, the splash from that first drop in the ocean developed into the perfect wave. For two years, Moe has sought the perfect whale to share his whale passion with the SPU community.

Early in life, when Moe was a child, the fear of the leviathan was struck into his heart by a warehouse exhibit of life-like plastic whales and droning whale calls. But at eight years old, a dense Erich Hoyt treatise on orcas became the continual fixation of Moe. Moe’s childhood trauma transformed into a fascination with whales and their mythology.

In 2017, Moe, an English professor at Seattle Pacific University, heard about a 30 foot gray whale in the news. Standing in Eaton hall, he considered the open space on the base floor. “We could go get that whale and hang the skeleton up there,” he thought.

Moe went to Bruce Congdon, professor of biology and dean STEM, and pitched the idea. Congdon remembered the Eaton architect’s original vision for the building, which included a hanging whale skeleton on display. Moe was given the go ahead.

Moe contacted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). After a ten minute phone call, he received appropriate permits from NOAA and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Now Moe needed help with transportation logistics, so he contacted Rus Higley, director at the Marine Science and Technology Center of Highline College (MaST).

Higley had been involved in the assembly of two whale skeletons and had experience retrieving whales.

When the recovery crew reached the whale, the majority of its body had sunk into the wet sand. Without excavation tools and machinery, the whale was immovable. They harvested samples of jawbone, vertebrae, flipper, and the pelvis.

Moe had become the only member of NOAA’s “needs-a-whale” shortlist in the Puget Sound. The chase for the perfect whale was on.

The team strips away at the whale/ Photo Courtesy of Daniel Wright

During 2018, Moe was contacted about 15 beached whales. Some were too big, some too small, and some too remote.

Feb. 23, 2019, Paula Goezler reported a deceased gray whale in Longbranch, near her home. Goezler’s daughter and friends were celebrating her daughter’s 12th birthday and came down to the beach. As the tide lowered, the group spotted the unmoving whale in the water. Goezler contacted a local whale-spotting Facebook group, Orca Network, and was instructed to contact Cascadia Research.

Moe and Higley visited the whale with Cascadia Research, assisting in the initial necropsy by taking measurements and body parts to be analyzed, and anchoring the whale to the beach.

The young female whale was emaciated, with only about a third the blubber of a healthy whale her size. There were rake mark scars along the ridge bumps of its back from orca attacks, and several more bite marks on its damaged fluke, the tail of the whale.

“They did not find any plastic in the whale,” Moe noted. “The whale’s belly was just full of seaweed. It was starving and just trying to find anything to eat. It’s sad for this one whale, but gray whales as a species are off the endangered species list, their numbers are increasing every year.”

Moe chooses to view natural whale strandings positively, remembering something Higley said about the recent beachings of humpback whales in Washington, the first occurrences in modern history. “They can’t die here, unless they’re here.”

The Saturday following the necropsy, Moe and Higley reached the whale at high tide in Captain Vernon Moore’s boat. Higley went down in scuba gear and tethered buoys to the submerged whale.

Large gloves were worn in order to dissect the mammal. Photo Courtesy of Daniel Wright

Once the whale was floating and secured with a heavy duty rope, the boat towed the whale to Gig Harbor to be weighed and lifted into a truck for transport.

Every step of the way, there was no immediate costs associated with transport. “The guy with the towboat was free, the rendering truck was free, the manure was free, the farm was free. It was such a cool community effort,” Moe said.

Arriving at an undisclosed farm, the whale was unloaded, and a crew of 25 people from Cascade Research, MaST, and SPU. Researchers, volunteers and SPU faculty from the English, biology, chemistry and theology departments went to task removing whale flesh from whale bone and burying the bones in manure.

After a year, the bones will be defleshed and dried by microbes in the manure and soil. A few more months in direct sun will bleach and sanitize the bones.

From within whale collection process, Moe saw beautifully interdisciplinary cooperation.

“The fact that I could just knock on the dean’s door and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea.’ I know all these biology professors, and to be able to talk to them easily,” Moe said.

September of 2020, Moe plans to teach a Ways of Engaging class alongside Rus Higley in which a variety of guest speakers and professors would holistically explore the whale.
Professors will discuss the whale as an art installation, a mythic figure, an evolved organism, a theological device and a cognitive creature.

“We have all these different faculty from across campus coming together to talk about this whale,” said Moe.

“That’s what a liberal arts education is. In a way, the whale embodies what SPU should be doing.”

Despite the intimate connection Moe has with whales, he refuses to name this whale.

“Names are for kids, pets and mascots,” Moe said. “I feel like the moment you name it, it ceases to be a whale, this grand creature, leviathan.”

Moe is currently working on his own literary whale project where he tries to answer the question “How does someone come to know whales?”

“You see one in the wild, all you see is a glimpse of them, and then they’re gone. It’s this really elusive and enigmatic animal.”

Moe’s book will use the the whale as a springboard for investigating the structure of narrative, looking at stories like Moby Dick and Jonah.

For SPU, the narrative looks like an English professor who set out on an unconventional journey and found a whale.