The fin whale, the world’s second largest animal, can be found in the world’s major oceans, in climates both polar and tropical, and in the basement of Knox’s Umbeck Science-Mathematics Center.
Its skeleton, that is. When a 55-foot long whale washed up on eastern coastal shores in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Professor Nicholas Gidmark had no idea that nearly six years later he would be driving its skeleton to Knox College from New Hampshire in a U-Haul. The bones will be suspended in the renovated atrium of the science center by Homecoming 2019.
Ethical Whale Hunting
Renovations for the Umbeck Science-Mathematics Center (SMC) have been a proactive item on the Knox agenda since the conclusion of building the Whitcomb Art Center in 2016. Around this time, Gidmark noticed the projected atrium space was 75 feet in length, 25 feet in width and two stories in height, and felt that something was missing.
“I don’t really think I set out at the beginning of this to find any specific animal. I think that the realization in my mind was, there’s gonna be this huge beautiful space and it’s empty. Why don’t we put something awesome there? And in my mind the best way to be awesome is to push that boundary of ‘how do we be as epic as possible?’” he said. “This is the second largest animal alive on earth today. It’s epic.”
The United States is a member of the International Whaling Commission which presently upholds a 32-year ban on commercial whaling, making it illegal to own any portion of whale anatomy. As soon as the idea sparked in his mind, Gidmark applied for a federal permit to possess a large whale.
Professor of Biology Nicholas Gidmark displays the vertebrae of the fin whale at the groundbreaking of SMC on Oct. 19. (Katy Coseglia/TKS)
The application process requires a detailed description of who wants it, the type of institution it will be involved with and how the specimen will be made accessible. For Gidmark it was an easy sell with a long wait.
“So eventually the feds said ‘okay cool, you now have a permit to obtain a large whale,’” he said. “But that permit in itself doesn’t actually get you a large whale. It just gives you legal right to possess one if you happen upon it.”
When Gidmark first arrived at Knox in 2016 he came equipped with numerous connections from his past work teaching summer classes at Shoals Marine Laboratory in Maine. He has connections with marine mammalogists linked to a network of institutions on the east coast certified by government branches to collect, analyze and store marine mammals that wash ashore for future scientific study.
Many organizations agreed to put Gidmark on a waiting list for a beached large whale. However, he would have to show up to a site on the east coast within 24 hours of a call with resources and manpower to transport the whale—a nearly impossible feat to demand of himself and several others with pressing responsibilities.
“That was initially disheartening, but then one of the contacts I had in the Massachusetts Department of Wildlife suggested this specimen, which had already been cleaned in this state and it was at the Seacoast Science Center,” Gidmark said. “When this animal washed up they were a part of the clean up crew to take care of it. They didn’t really have space to put it back together and display it indoors, so they actually had it outside.”
While the Seacoast Science Center initially declined Gidmark’s request for their fin-whale skeleton, he negotiated with them by vouching for the indoor space and resources Knox had available to piece together and display the animal, as well as the educational benefit it would offer students.
The Seacoast Science Center agreed to pass the whale on during Winter Term 2018. Gidmark and Professor of Art Andrea Ferrigno visited New Hampshire in June to investigate the specimen and how to transport it. Gidmark drove in a U-Haul to New Hampshire and back in August to deliver the specimen home.
Benefit to Curriculum
Along with Gidmark, Professor Andrea Ferrigno and Professor of Theatre Craig Choma are playing roles in the ceiling suspension process, and expressed interest in using the specimen as a teaching supplement within their respective disciplines.
“I think right now it dovetails very easily into things like drawing, lighting design and anatomy because the concept of scale and size is really important for each of those disciplines, and it’s really hard to illustrate,” Gidmark said. “If you stand inside a thoracic cavity that has an aorta big enough for you to slide through, that changes your gut. You feel that in a way that’s clearer.”
Choma serendipitously overheard Gidmark discussing the whale during an event at the president’s house last term. Immediately, being a lighting designer, he wondered how it would be lit and offered his services to Gidmark. Choma believes lighting design is an element that is often overlooked in undertakings such as the whale skeleton.
“Light has everything to do with how form is revealed, with how shape is born, and when you’ve got something as awesome as that thing is, what a travesty it would be to get that all rigged up into that atrium and only have fluorescent lights on it, or to have a spotlight or something like that causing horrible shadowing,” Choma said. “It’s theatrical, in its own right.”
After discussing lighting with the architectures, they made plans to distribute enough power to institute a lighting control panel in the area of the whale. Choma plans to implement the whale into his lighting design classes which take place every other Spring Term. He also intends to use it to help students he works with regularly to gain knowledge on different types of lighting design. The control panel will allow students to experiment with what considerations are important in architectural lighting. He believes the more of these opportunities he has to give his students the better off they will be.
“[We’ll consider] what are all of your architectural fixtures doing and how do they work with the sunlight, how does the building continue to sort of morph over time based on qualities of light—how does it breathe, in a way,” Choma said. “…Just being able to make it seem as though it’s come alive, that care has been given to how it’s viewed.”
Although there’s much excitement among faculty for potential educational opportunities, they can’t make concrete plans until all the bones are properly arranged and suspended. Since receiving the specimen, Gidmark has conducted independent study work with eight biology students and Ferrigno with one art student.
While large plans are in place for the year ahead, there’s sufficient work left to be done. In the state the whale was received, not all the bones were available and most segments were incomplete as the whale encountered various physical traumas throughout his life. Faculty and students are planning to restore the skeletal frame as much as possible, but Gidmark believes some of its physical imperfections add to its character.
“These bones tell stories… this animal did things in its life: it got hit by boats, got bruised, got an infection, broke a rib here or there. Life happens in the ocean just like it does anywhere else, and we can actually read some of those stories that are written in calcified bone,” he said.
The comparative anatomy students taking part in the project as an independent study are working to identify the bones. The crew is attempting to piece the whale together and pinpoint which particular bones need to be reconstructed. Once broken pieces are identified, they plan to impregnate the specimen with plastic then utilize the 3D printer, balsa foam and Ferrigno’s sculpting skills to restore individual pieces. In the meantime, they are working out methods for cleaning the pieces.
“There are some pretty widely used techniques for that. Andrea’s been really wonderful about looking through the published literature and literature online of how other people have done this with whale bones of various sizes,” Gidmark said. “We’re gonna have to do some experimenting to figure out what exactly the technique is. It’s gonna be a long process for sure.”
Although there’s a short 12 months left before the whale will have steel rods drilled through it for ceiling suspension, Gidmark and his company are excited for the undertaking.
“There’s a huge amount of work to be done, which I think is part of why we got the animal to begin with, why the Seacoast Science Center was willing to pass it on, but I also think that kinda makes it more real; it makes it more tangible,” he said. “That’s one of the things I really love about this project—if Knox was a filthy rich institution, we couldn’t just go buy one. It’s illegal. Anytime you have a specimen like this you have to earn it; you have to put your blood, sweat and tears into it.”
The student and faculty constructed whale will be unveiled hopefully in time for Homecoming 2019.
“I think in a certain way [this project] levels the playing field a lot, and lets us show off who we are as a student body, who we are as an institution, and lets us build what we have… which I think is really fun,” Gidmark said.