Can you put together a complete Gray Whale skeleton?

The Gray Whale Project is a popular education program at The Whale Museum that began in 1995. Students participate in engaging activities that lead them on a path of scientific discovery about gray whales and their biology, as well as the relationship between humans and whales.

The waters around San Juan Island are teeming with a rich diversity of marine life, and some of the largest and most dynamic representatives are whales. The gray whales seen from our western shores travel farther than any other mammal. Their annual migration can take them more than 12,000 miles, swimming from Alaska's Chukchi and Bering seas to Baja California, Mexico. As ambassadors of the eastern Pacific, they represent a connection between the thousands of communities along the coast. The whales' popularity is also a unique opportunity for environmental awareness through science-based education.


Among the Gray Whale Project's educational activities is the articulation of a real gray whale skeleton. Imagine being presented with a jumbled set of real whale bones and challenged to articulate them into a complete, 28-foot, juvenile gray whale skeleton! The secret of this particular animal begins to unveil itself as construction is completed.

Efforts to complete the skeleton stimulate discussion of comparative anatomy, marine conservation, museum techniques, mythology, environmental ethics, whaling and more. Whales are impressive and fascinating animals for students to study. For educators, whales can provide an underlying theme for the integration of whale biology with more general scientific concepts such as comparative anatomy, food webs, invertebrate biology, science technology, and oceanography.

History of The Gray Whale Project

The inspiration for The Whale Museum's Gray Whale Project "surfaced" in July 1995, when the carcass of a 28-foot juvenile gray whale washed ashore on Orcas Island, Wash. Albert Shepard, former curator of The Whale Museum, led the effort to salvage and clean the bones.

The carcass was towed to a remote beach to decompose after biological samples were taken. Since its initial collection, the skeleton has taken hundreds of hours of effort to bring to the present stage. Washington State Parks provided a vessel and aided in the salvaging of the gray whale skeleton. Community volunteers, Orcas Island Elementary School and Friday Harbor's Spring Street School students helped to clean and prepare the bones for the program.

The skeleton has been featured in a variety of articles, academic conferences, local school curricula, student workshops and at the San Juan County fair. The program has been taken to regional schools and other facilities such as the Marine Science Center in Port Townsend, Washington, and the Oregon State University Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon.

In 1998 The Whale Museum's Gray Whale Project received funding from the San Juan Public Schools Foundation and the Norman Archibald Charitable Trust to develop a cooperative "Gray Whale Adventure" with The Whale Museum and the University of Washington Friday Harbor Labs.

With the help of local teachers, a plan developed for 8th grade students that provided unique hands-on experiences in the study of gray whales and the environmental, cultural and aesthetic issues surrounding them. The program featured labs and associated workbooks that focused on gray whale feeding strategies, insulation properties, hydrodynamics, prey identification and classification, computer imaging, and facility tours.

Local 8th graders were led on field trips to The Whale Museum and Friday Harbor Labs. All of the 72 students in the 8th grade at Friday Harbor Middle School were invited to participate. To maximize the impact and quality of this learning experience, group sizes were limited to 12 students per field trip.

The Gray Whale Project is now incorporated into the The Whale Museum's education programs as a Whale Discovery Lab, and groups from diverse backgrounds and interest levels ranging from second graders through Elderhostel have participated in building the skeleton.

An Unusual Opportunity

The Gray Whale Project represents a truly unique cooperative effort between The Whale Museum and a variety of other program participants to provide students with an unusual opportunity to study the biology of whales. It is only because of The Whale Museum's federal permit to legally collect and display marine mammal parts for research and educational purposes that public school children have this opportunity to work with a real gray whale skeleton.  

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