August 5, 2014

The Whale Beneath Mt. Fairweather

by Christine Gabriele, Wildlife Biologist from National Park Service ' . get_the_title() . '' ); ?>

On June 25, 2014, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve hosted the grand opening of “Snow” – an exhibit paying tribute to a pregnant 45 ½-foot female humpback whale that was killed after being struck by a cruise ship. Funded in part by the National Park Foundation, the exhibit honors Snow’s story.

Many native Huna Tlingit families participated in the grand opening event and conducted a spirit ceremony that included giving Snow the Tlingit name, “Tsalxáan Tayée Yaay,” which translates as “Whale Beneath Mt. Fairweather.”







In life, Snow was one of nature’s treasures in the sea and she also helped us learn a lot about her species; the story of her death and return to Glacier Bay provides important lessons in natural resource management.

The exhibit itself is a work of art, magnificent for its sheer size and the graceful pose that suggests that the whale is in motion.

The exhibit is housed in an open-sided outdoor pavilion built by the National Park Service. Cleaning and preparing the bones took over 1,000 hours of work by park staff and volunteers, followed by the expert attentions of a professional whale articulation contractor. Dan DenDanto and his crew at Whales and Nails, LLC did the final cleaning and preparation of the bones, including repairing Snow’s damaged skull and fabricating replacements for missing bones. They did an artful job on every aspect of the work. There are 161 bones in all, which weigh over 3,700 pounds, not including the steel and other structural elements which now hold the skeleton together.

National Park Service photo of Snow’s fluke markings, by Janet Neilson, taken under the authority of scientific research permit #945-1499-00, issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service

In both life and death, Snow helped us to understand more about humpback whales. Snow’s recorded history in Glacier Bay began in 1975 when researcher Charles Jurasz first photographed her unique tail markings, and continued for many decades through sightings from Alaska and Hawaii. Jurasz was the first to observe that Alaska humpback whale tails are as unique as fingerprints.  Today, researchers around the world use individual identification photographs to track the life histories and migrations of individual whales, dolphins, and other animals.

Scientific observations of Snow’s behavior and biology (she was also known as whale #68 in the Southeast Alaska humpback whale catalog) are found in at least five scientific papers. One of her most important contributions was in resolving a long-standing controversy about the lifespan of humpback whales. Information on whale lifespans is essential for predicting population growth for this endangered species. Counts of growth-layers in her earplug revealed that Snow was born around 1957.

As for Snow’s unfortunate death, whale-vessel collisions are an issue of increasing concern in the world’s oceans. Although essentially free of cargo traffic, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is a very popular Alaska tourist destination. It is also a place with an increasing whale population, narrow passageways, and little leeway for mistakes. The vast majority of visitors see the park while aboard private or commercial vessels.  The park has some of the most stringent requirements in the world for minimizing the risk of whale-vessel collisions, including limits on the numbers of vessels, the speed they can travel, and the minimum distance they must keep from the whales. Snow’s death has been a driving force behind the park’s growing efforts to maintain a better line of communication with ship operators about whale collision avoidance measures.

Displaying this spectacular and beautiful skeleton is one way to turn Snow’s tragedy into an educational opportunity. We hope that this skeleton will inspire Glacier Bay visitors to learn more about whales and their challenges in the marine environment for decades to come.

Christine Gabriele is a wildlife biologist with the Humpback Whale Monitoring Program at Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska. You can read more about this project here.

Photo credit: National Park Service

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