Feb 16, 2007

Mark Alan Lovewell, Martha's Vineyard Gazette


A dead 52-foot fin back whale is missing.

Last Friday, two officials from a museum in Oklahoma City, Okla. went to Norton Point with the hopes of recovering the whale, buried in beach sand two years ago.

They hired a Vineyard Haven excavating firm to do exploratory digging. After hours of effort, they couldn't find it. The project has now been abandoned.

"We may not have dug deep enough," said David Grunden of Oak Bluffs, a town shellfish constable and a voluntary member of the Vineyard's marine mammal stranding network, who participated in the search.

"I can't believe the bones would wash away without someone seeing it," Mr. Grunden said.

"It is not necessarily gone. Maybe we weren't able to find it," said Jane Varkonda, an Edgartown conservation commission official, who was also on the beach all day Friday, watching as the excavating firm dug deep, long trenches.

She said the search for the whale was done using global positioning system technology, commonly known as GPS.

The dead whale washed ashore in January of 2005. Staff from the New England Aquarium traveled to the Vineyard and, over the weekend of Jan. 8 and 9, 2005, did a necropsy to determine the cause of death. Crews attending to the dead whale included a dozen volunteers.

After important pieces of tissue were recovered, the smelly remains were buried deep in the sand. Cornelia Dean, a writer for the New York Times, watched and documented the event and wrote a story for the newspaper's Jan. 18, 2005 edition.

Mr. Grunden was there at the time, and is pretty certain they went back to the right place this past Friday.

But that day, under adverse cold winds, Terry Boyd of Watercourse Construction in Vineyard Haven, the backhoe operator, dug at least four long trenches, some 150 feet in length. Mr. Boyd had been the original operator who buried the animal.

No whale.

Mrs. Varkonda wondered whether there were errors in the coordinates, which would explain why it wasn't found.

Joey Williams, director of education for Skulls Unlimited, a for-profit company based in Oklahoma City, literally was out in the cold on Norton Point this past Friday with his boss, Jay Villemarette, the owner of Skulls Unlimited International and the director of the non-profit Museum of Osteology, also based in Oklahoma City.

Skulls Unlimited, a leading supplier of osteological specimens, has been buying and selling skeletons for nearly 20 years.

The osteology museum is now under construction in Oklahoma City and may open within a year. Mr. Williams said they hoped to add the whale skeleton to the museum's collection.

"We would have brought it to the facility in Oklahoma, cleaned it, put it together and suspended it in the museum," Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Williams said the Discovery Channel had expressed an interest in doing a story about the museum's project to acquire the skeleton. Federal and state authorities had given permission for the project because of the intention to use the skeleton for educational purposes.

"It may have washed back out to sea or the beach may have buried it deeper," Mr. Williams said. "We've abandoned that one. But we are hoping to get another on Martha's Vineyard or elsewhere." He said the Discovery Channel remains interested.