The Suquamish Tribe recently pulled up the bones of a gray whale from Agate Pass, with hopes of rebuilding the skeleton for educational purposes.
The tribe acquired the remains of the juvenile whale in July 2011 after the mammal beached itself and died near Silverdale. After biologists gathered tissue samples, the tribe wrapped the whale in net material and towed it to Agate Pass to let it naturally decompose.
While the soft tissue had completely decomposed, many of the bones were found to be broken or too brittle to use, including the skull, which was partially crushed by the weight of the rest of the bones.
“It’s too bad we’re not able to rebuild the entire skeleton, but there are parts that we could still use in educational environments or the tribal museum,” said Viviane Barry, the tribe’s shellfish management biologist. “The baleen plates look like they’re in good condition, as do two of the jawbones, which are about six feet in length.”
The fibrous baleen plates, made of keratin, filter food from the water and mud that rushes into the whale’s mouth as it feeds near the ocean floor. Barry added that the whale’s tail vertebrate and some ribs also came up in good condition.
Historically, tribes would trade parts of the whale with each other, since not all tribes had access to them within their fishing areas. Tribal members would use every part of the animal, including blubber for cooking and bones for tools.
Gray whales typically migrate between Baja California and Alaska and can range from 16 feet to 45 feet in length. Once listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, gray whale populations along the West Coast have rebounded to near historic levels. The average gray whale lifespan is 20-40 years.
More photos of the retrieval can be found at go.nwifc.org/whalebones.