The Story of Our Blue Whale

Turning tragedy into opportunity

Scientists from Humboldt State University inspect the whale carcass.

When the devastating news that a 73-ft long female blue whale had suffered a lethal injury from a ship’s propeller off our coast in 2009 became public, the community of Fort Bragg came together.  Seeing this beautiful whale washed up on shore was so moving that members of our community voiced an idea to salvage the skeleton for Fort Bragg, regardless of the fact that there would be no agency or university leading the effort.  Working with NOAA, the City was able to obtain rights to acquire the skeleton for eventual public display.  More than 200 people walked away from their normal lives to participate in an unprecedented community effort to haul 70-tons of bones and blubber up a 40-foot cliff and bury the whale in compost out in the forest.  It was a monumental task.

Students from all over got a once-in-a-lifetime blue whale-sized anatomy lesson during the flensing process as we worked with national experts to provide as many samples for research as possible.  Go to our amazing blue whales page to see the cool research we’ve been able to contribute toward so far.

Student and scientist work together to remove the blubber.
Student and scientist work together to remove the blubber


Volunteers remove compost and dirt to reveal the bones beneath.
Volunteers remove compost and dirt to reveal the bones beneath.
27 dig mendo high diggers
Mendocino High School boys get to work

After four years of sitting in compost and sand in large pits in the forest, our amazing volunteers once again came together with the City of Fort Bragg to carefully dig out each bone.  Thankfully, microbes and insects had done a good job, and most of the flesh was gone.  Some bones, like the caudal vertebrae near the tail, were still encased in very strong connective tissue and had to be put back in compost to finish the job.  The bones were trucked to the wastewater treatment plant in Fort Bragg where we have been cleaning and scrubbing them (what a great place for this dirty job!)  Watch the story unfold in pictures below!

The skeleton is now in storage awaiting funding to begin the next stage of the restoration process: degreasing to remove the (extremely smelly!) internal oils.


You can help us move on to the next phase of this exciting project by donating today!

First view of the whale as she came to shore
The finger cover where the whale eventually ended up
She lodged upside down against a rock in the cove
Scientists and students making the first cut
the team at work "flensing"
Trying to keep the small cove open by moving out blubber by hand
Larger pieces are pulled up the cliff with heavy equipment
When possible, bones are carried up the cliff one by one
Various samples are taken for research and for the investigation into her death
As sections are brought up top, more volunteers cut away blubber and tissue
Heavy equipment is used to help the volunteers
The hyoid bone and larynx are among samples sent off for research
Volunteers working on the flipper
Comparing the remnant "hip bone" to the scapula
Things got very messy
Volunteers working on freeing up the skull and baleen
Trying to clean the baleen
Bones pile up on the cliff
The last bone up the cliff is the skull!
The skull-broken from being wedged on the rocks
All of the blubber and tissue cut away are sent off to be composted
The injury site showing the cuts from the ship's propeller blades
Everything is loaded up to head to the forest for burial
Once again, heavy equipment does a lot of the lifting
Bones are placed carefully in hole and photographed too document position
Sand and compost are placed around the bones and another layer is put down
Anything with small bones, like the flippers, are wrapped in landscape fabric
4 years later, we come back to dig up the bones
The photographs show us what to expect as we dig
Students from Mendocino High School pitch in
Once we find the bones, garden tools are used to scrape away the sand and compost
Here are the vertebrae from the burial picture above
It was very exciting to bring up a bone!
Every bone - especially the clean ones- were a triumph
The flippers required more work to get off the tough connective tissue
More students helping out at the cleaning station
Cervical vertebrae as they look after scrubbing off the dirt
The work was hard but fun
The bones look today (minus the skull which needed more time in compost)
Cervical vertebrae lined up
Thoracic vertebra
Lumbar vertebrae
Intervertebral disc
Very last caudal vertebrae
Bones of the flipper
Moving the skull
Bones in storage awaiting the next phase of restoration
Kids getting a rare blue whale anatomy lesson