Rosie's a guy
July 3, 2008 · Updated 1:38 PM
"Rosie's had a sex-change.Based on recently-released DNA and other evidence, marine researches have re-thought the gender of the young, 32-foot gray whale beached on the shores of Whidbey Island about two years ago - and whose bones are now on display at the end of Coupeville wharf.Whale expert Howard Garrett, who runs the non-profit Orcas Conservancy, a Greenbank-based whale advocacy group, explained the latest news this way: Rosie's a guy.The Rosie nomiker reportedly came from community members, who spent long hours during Christmastide 1998 cutting up the whale's body and preparing the bones for treatment. The project was said to be their holiday treasure, or Christmas Rose.The new findings and altered perspective on the whale's sex are largely based on evidence collected by Cascadia Research, a non-profit marine research group in Olympia.Cascadia biologist John Calambokidis said tissue samples taken when the whale was discovered in early December, 1998, were sent for DNA testing at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, a government research lab. The lab results, returned to Cascadia about a year ago, contradicted the original conclusion that Rosie was a girl.Calambokidis said the state researcher who examined Rosie and officially determined the whale's sex confused female ovaries with male testes.The new revelations have already prompted members of the Island County Beach Watchers - the community action group that spearheaded the preservation of the whale's remains - to change references to the whale's gender in the exhibit and literature about the whale.Not everyone is as eager to accept the change, however.Gerry Smith, a retired Oak Harbor banker who was one of the leaders of the whale preservation effort, felt skeptical of Cascadia's methods when news of the gender swap was announced a few weeks ago.He said the Cascadia research could be flawed because there was so much lag time between the whale's discovery and the study. He also asserted Cascadia researchers never got a direct look at the creature, like he and others did.It lacked a penis and testicles, said Smith, who noted a whale penis can measure between four and six feet in length. It's not easy to miss.Smith wondered whether the specimens taken from Rosie could have been confused with those of other whales.Calambokidis says he suspected there was a gender mix-up from the beginning, although the research team he sent to inspect the whale's body before it was dismantled was unable to identify the whale's sex, since the creature was lying on its stomach.He explained there was a high probability that Rosie was a male, since most beached whales between 1979 - when Cascadia began tracking beachings - and 1998 were male. As well, two other male whales were beached on the island the same year.Calambokidis said his researchers concluded up to 30 percent of Rosie's skin had already peeled when it the body was examined. By that time, he said, female ovaries are so decomposed they have the consistency of jelly.However, said Calambokidis, the intake report indicted what appeared to be Rosie's organs were still relatively firm. Testes last a lot longer, he said.It was further learned the biologist who compiled the report had never examined whale genitals before.Smith countered that Rosie's body still seemed intact when volunteers cut open the carcass. Even the eyeballs, he said, were round and hard.Smith said he had seen the male organs of other whales whose bodies were more decomposed than Rosie's. There was no way to miss the fact they were male, he said. It's a grand piece of equipment, he said. Calambokidis took the DNA findings and his personal observations back to the biologist, as well as several other researchers. They all agreed, in light of the new information, that Rosie was likely male.Susan Berta, who served as executive director of the Beach Watchers during the whale project and now serves as a lead coordinator for the Orcas Conservancy, was equally supportive of Calambokidis' research. She said she accepted Rosie's sexual re-orientation as just one of the discoveries of the many discoveries made through the ongoing study process.Berta figured most of her colleagues didn't have any difficulty with Rosie's guy status either.Smith maintained Calambokidis simply hasn't proven his case yet. And until then, he will continue to refer to Rosie as a female.Long Bechard, owner of the Coupeville Harbor Store, said she also doesn't care about the whale's sex. It would be helpful, though, to know one way or the other - so she could answer the many customers who will probably ask her about it in the future.Bechard, whose shop is located next to the lobby where Rosie hangs, pointed out the whale exhibit's re-edited brochures include the gender change, but offer no insights about the new findings or disputed claims. An explanation would be nice, Bechard said. She added that reaching the end of the Rosie's sex saga will be important for the people of Coupeville, many of whom identify with whale. In the end, said Bechard, people just want to know for sure.Just tell us, she said. Is Rosie a he, she -or it? "