Flying Fish

Friday Night Learning
by Nicole Carlozo -- April 5th, 2011

What were you doing on Friday night? Movies? Out on the town? Looking at whale bones?

As some of you probably know, this past weekend was Admitted Students Weekend at the Nicholas School. If you missed the festivities, let me assure you that whale bones were not on the schedule. While there was a lovely bonfire, delicious s’mores, plenty of informal social mixers, and a lively picnic for the admitted students, my whale story comes from 2 weekends ago when I visited Beaufort, NC. Alas, with final projects bearing down on us all, my relaxing weekend on the coast feels so long ago.

As a Coastal Management student, I’ve been eagerly awaiting my second year at Duke’s Marine Lab in Beaufort. With Fall registration happening this week, next semester and the Marine Lab have been on my mind. Therefore, when the second years invited us down for a whirlwind overnight trip, I gladly accepted. Much fun was had, including a trip to see Bonehenge, a partially reconstructed sperm whale skeleton.

Into the Woods We Go…

After 3 1/2 hours on the road and the stress of leaving my wallet behind in Durham, I arrived at the Marine Lab famished and restless. A quick glance at the water, however, soothed my troubles. Dinner was served courtesy of our marine lab friends and, like any respectful graduate student, I packed it away as quickly as possible.

Once everyone had trickled in from various NC locations, eight of the more adventurous CEMs loaded into the lab vans. I pictured a pleasant display awaiting us at the Museum, possibly in a back work room or private building. Soon, however, our vans turned onto a narrow dirt road, sheltered from view by a shadowy forest. I discovered that my expectations were not to be met. For one thing, we were in the woods. For another, the whale was, for lack of a better term, in pieces. In some ways, however, my expectations were greatly exceeded.

What awaited us was a very large operation in a very small location – a custom-built shed nestled far enough in the woods to feel quite out of reach. Keith Rittmaster, Natural Science curator at the Maritime Museum, met us with enthusiasm to talk about the 33.5 foot male sperm whale that washed ashore at Cape Lookout in 2004. For someone who hadn’t initially planned on reconstructing the skeleton, I was amazed at his fervor for the project. What sat before us was a plethora of whale bones scattered around tools, drawings, artwork, and tokens from past tour groups lucky enough to set foot in the workplace.

Bones from the 33.5 foot male sperm whale.

Bones from the 33.5 foot male sperm whale.

Replica of the whale's flipper (displaying 5 digits) along with an X-ray.

Replica of the whale's flipper (displaying 5 digits) along with an X-ray.

I kept thinking, the next time I see these bones, they will be pieced together and hanging whole in the NC Maritime Museum. I immediately thought back to my childhood when I fantasized about digging up bones from the earth – the possibility of new discoveries and recreating history. The whale, or course, landed itself in this curator’s hands in a very different fashion from a fossil specimen. Although unsure of the exact cause of death, researchers suspect hearing loss.

By counting annual growth layers from a tooth specimen, researchers estimated the whale's age to be 15 years.

By counting annual growth layers from a tooth specimen, researchers estimated the whale's age to be 15 years.

Close-up of the flipper replica (showing skeleton and flipper shape).
Close-up of the flipper replica (showing skeleton and flipper shape).

My classmates and I spent a good chunk of our Friday evening talking about whales in the woods. Perhaps that says a lot about us. Yes, we embrace our nerdy tendencies.

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