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Skeletal whale, porpoise make way for sea lion at the Coupeville Wharf
Longtime Coupeville Wharf residents Rosie the gray whale and Rudy the Dall porpoise will get a new friend this Friday.
A group of more than 40 volunteers from the Orca Network and Puget Sound Stranding Network are behind the installation of the third marine skeleton, a Steller sea lion named Samson.
On Feb. 17, 2008, the networks received a report of a sea lion carcass on the beach at Double Bluff. Small marine creatures wash ashore all the time but this guy was different, wildlife biologist Matt Klope said of the adult male Steller sea lion. The average mature male is 13 feet long and weighs 2,000 pounds.
“This is the first Steller sea lion on record to wash up on Whidbey Island,” Klope said of the large mammal that’s often seen in Alaskan waters. “They’re very rare here.”
The beach crew photographed the animal and took samples of blood, muscles and organ tissue to analyze. There was a small penetrating wound on Samson’s right side that may have become infected and cause the pneumonia that ultimately killed him, according to test results from his lung tissue.
The volunteers couldn’t determine exactly how Samon was injured but it wasn’t a bullet, Klope said.
After they gathered samples, volunteers started the dismantling process. The skin came off, tissue was removed from the bones and the pack-out effort began. The flippers were removed with skin and bone intact, Klope said.
“We got together, cut him up, cleaned the bones and put him back together again,” he said of the dedicated group of people who respond to reports of beached whales, dolphins, sea lions and porpoises.
The skeleton sat in his yard for a time to allow nature to take its course and help with the “cleaning” process as maggots munched away at any remaining tissue.
From there volunteers sporting surgical masks brought the remains inside and continued to clean the bones with manual scraping, boiling water and bleach. Finally, Samson’s bones came back together again with the help of a steel rod, wire and a few screws.
To ensure Samson got back together just as he was taken apart, the volunteers meticulously labeled each and every piece, Klope said.
Despite the smell of rotton flesh, the atmosphere was light and the crew regularly enjoyed cookies and coffee while they worked in Klope’s shop at his home in Oak Harbor. Although most of the volunteers are retired, all ages partook in Samson’s removal and reconstruction.
To protect the bones and give them a uniform color, they’re coated with a mixture of Elmer’s glue and white paint, Klope said.
Samson’s eight-foot fin-span is too wide to fit through the Coupeville Wharf’s doors, so he’ll arrive in three pieces where Klope and others will assemble and hang the skeleton from the ceiling.
The public is welcome to visit Sampson, Rudy and Rosie after the installation, which should be completed by Friday afternoon.
There will eventually be a fourth addition to the Coupeville Wharf skelton crew, Klope said. This month a harbor porpoise washed up on West Beach. With Samson out of Klope’s shop, he’ll have plenty more room to start on the porpoise that’s currently chilling in his freezer.