By now, you might have noticed something different about Union Wharf. The cruise ship seems to be docking there a lot. More seagulls than usual. Oh, and also the giant whale skeleton. The skeleton in …
By now, you might have noticed something different about Union Wharf. The cruise ship seems to be docking there a lot. More seagulls than usual.
Oh, and also the giant whale skeleton.
The skeleton in question, nicknamed Gunther, was given quite the whalecome home party Tuesday, Aug. 15 as members and supporters of the Port Townsend Maritime Center gathered to celebrate the cetacean’s completed assembly and pay homage to his remains.
“He has a story to tell,” said Betsy Carlson, the marine science center’s science coordinator.
“Individuals and agencies came together to find out what his story was, is, and looking into the future, how can we tell that story to people who come after us?”
Gunther’s journey to Union Wharf began in 2019, when he washed up on the shores of Olele Point, just two miles from the private beach of project founders Mario Rivera and his wife Stefanie Worwag.
This was fate, Rivera noted, as the two of them volunteered for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
Worwag, a veterinarian, even helped perform the necropsy, which showed eel grass and bits of plastic in Gunther’s stomach — common indicators of malnutrition.
Because there were so many whale strandings occurring at the time, there was nowhere else for Gunther to go. Wanting him to decompose undisturbed, Worwag and Rivera offered up their beach.
Well, Worwag, anyway.
“At first I said no,” Rivera said. “But then…okay.”
His change of heart led to a deep affection for the whale.
“I’m Gunther’s dad,” Rivera joked, proudly showing off his so-labeled name tag at the event.
Worwag and Rivera aided in the decomposition process by putting lime on Gunther’s body. It sped up the process and stifled the smell. When the bones were finally exposed, they undertook the arduous task of transporting the bones — all 500 pounds of them — by hand, pickup truck, and skiff to their backyard.
“And then it was a moment of…‘now what?’” Rivera recalled.
At first, they planned to keep him in their yard and mount the skeleton there, Rivera explained, but then they realized that Gunther was too special to keep to themselves.
“His skeleton is such a beautiful piece of art. It deserves to be out where everyone can see and enjoy it,” said Rivera.
“It felt a little like giving away our child,” he continued with a rueful laugh.
“Sad, but ultimately, it was good. This whole thing was only ever a labor of love.”
At the event, Carlson acknowledged with pride the huge volunteer effort and technical effort to make this whale appear on the wharf today.
Cascadia Research Collective, Sealife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research (SR3), and the Marine Science Center were all heavily involved in Gunther’s conservation.
Les Schnick, local artist and industrial engineer, tackled the skeleton assembly process with the help of fellow artist and shipwright Ric Brenden and Lee Post, who had previous experience assembling animal skeletons.
Schnick and Brenden, who had worked together building yachts, applied some of the same concepts as bit by bit, they pieced Gunther back together. “We divided him into four sections,” Schnick explained. “Skull, ribcage, and two parts of his tail.”
Worwag used her veterinary knowledge to lay out the ribs and vertebrate in the anatomically correct order. Once everything was aligned, they drilled precise holes and used steel rods and silicone to secure the bones in place.
The team assembled Gunther once off the premises, then disassembled and transported him to the wharf and repeated the whole process; this time, the real deal.
The wharf belongs to the Port. Additionally, the Jefferson County Historical Society and the city administration had to sign off, too.
“They were fully onboard!” Carlson said.
To keep Gunther safe, they set up security cameras that broadcast straight to the Marine Science Center’s headquarters, built a 42-inch high fence around the skeleton, and coated the bones with latex paint and a graffiti barrier coating.
Gunther is on permanent display.