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Beluga skeleton to be displayed at Kenaitze education center

A rearticulated beluga skeleton hanging with its skull turned to the side on Jan. 10, 2024.
Jamie Diep
/
KBBI
A rearticulated beluga skeleton hanging with its skull turned to the side on Jan. 10, 2024.

Students from the Kenai Peninsula College Semester by the Bay program have been working to put together a beluga skeleton for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe Kahtnuht’ana Duhdeldiht Campus.

The beluga whale whose skeleton the class just reassembled was stranded on the shore of the Kasilof River back in 2019. Students, professors, and local Tribe members then did a necropsy. After sending some tooth samples to the National Marine Fisheries Service, they got authorization to collect the bones.

Different cohorts of the Semester by the Bay Program – which teaches and provides students with internships related to marine biology – have worked with KPC adjunct professor Lee Post to reassemble various whale skeletons. Post says many of these students are handling drills for the first time, and they don’t have any fancy setup to work.

“It's not a workshop. It's not full of power tools. It's not full of woodworking tools. It's just a classroom with some counters, and we've made it work,” he said.

The students reassemble the skeleton as part of one of their class requirements as well as scan each bone with 3D imaging to create a record for it. The cohort of students from last fall recently completed a project rebuilding the 29 year old skeleton to be displayed at the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s education center.

Debbie Tobin is a biology professor and coordinator for the Semester by the Bay Program. She worked with members of the Tribe, Joel Isaak and Jennifer Williams, to prepare the skeleton to be articulated.

A rearticulated beluga skeleton hanging in a classroom at the Kenai Peninsula College Kachemak Bay Campus on Jan. 10, 2024.
Jamie Diep
/
KBBI
A rearticulated beluga skeleton hanging in a classroom at the Kenai Peninsula College Kachemak Bay Campus on Jan. 10, 2024.

But before they could assemble the skeleton, they had to get rid of the soft tissue like muscle and organs. They buried the bones at a homestead that belongs to Isaak’s parents in order for the soft tissue to decompose. The process normally takes about a year, but Tobin says the bones weren’t ready until 2022. Students began working to rearticulate the skeleton finally in fall of 2023.

Tobin says she and Post, the other professor, met with people at the education center and used a paper model of the beluga to decide on how the beluga should be positioned.

“We wanted to know for the skeletal articulation process, how to bend the head, the neck, and so on the tail,” she said, “did they want the flute up or oriented down and so on, and so we, they described how they wanted it for the display.”

Post then created a larger model that provides the outline for a metal rod the beluga’s backbones will be threaded through.

“We had a custom, a custom pipe bender, which is essentially the college's dumpster that happens to have a couple of spots that were just perfect for running a pipe through it and putting some student power hanging off of it,” he said.

Students were to work on different parts of the beluga like assembling the head, tail, ribs, backbone and flippers. Post gave them some guidance, but he says most of the responsibility was trusted to the students.

“They were doing the drilling and the gluing and the thinking and thinking outside the box and fixing what didn't come out right and redoing,” he said, “and piece by piece, they got these sections put together.”

Tobin says they are looking for funding to add signs about the whale, as well as its importance to the tribe.

“We'll be hopefully getting the money to put up sort of, you know, electronic storyboards and some other images and so on that will be in the educational facility,” she said.

The completed skeleton will hang for public viewing at the Kahtnuht’ana Duhdeldiht campus, an education center for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe in Kenai. Tobin and Post also plan on adding more whale skeletons like a younger beluga found last fall and a baby one found several years ago.

Jamie Diep is a reporter/host for KBBI from Portland, Oregon. They joined KBBI right after getting a degree in music and Anthropology from the University of Oregon. They’ve built a strong passion for public radio through their work with OPB in Portland and the Here I Stand Project in Taipei, Taiwan.Jamie covers everything related to Homer and the Kenai Peninsula, and they’re particularly interested in education and environmental reporting. You can reach them at jamie@kbbi.org to send story ideas.