All fin and bones

N.H. science center preserves skeleton of young humpback whale to serve as cautionary tale of how human actions affect sea creatures

By Tim Wacker
Globe Corresponent / July 12, 2009
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It’s not every day someone calls and asks if you want a whale. Rarer still, you accept the offer.

Wendy Lull, president of the Seacoast Science Center at Odiorne Point in Rye, N.H., wasn’t sure what she was getting into when she got such a call two years ago. When the 800-pound skeleton of a 2-year-old humpback whale named Tofu was hoisted to the rafters of the center’s cavernous main entrance last month, she knew she had given the right answer.

“It’s much more than I ever expected it to be,’’ Lull said as she tended to endless details on the ceremonial first day of the exhibit. “Every three or four years we do something big around here, but not often as big as a whale.’’

Tofu does make a statement. As you walk through the front doors, her head, the size and shape of an Italian sports car, fixes your gaze. The 8-foot ribs draw your eyes along a 32-foot spine that ends about 2 feet above your head in a fiberglass tail, modeled after her real-life appendage, which has no bones.

The underside of the tail is painted a creamy white that earned Tofu her name from scientists studying her off Cape Cod. She was last seen alive on June 21, 2007, shortly before she was believed to be hit by a ship.

It’s that part of Tofu’s tale the center hoped to tell when it accepted the whale offer and explored ways to finance the project. Tofu was just another of the half dozen or so whales killed by ships off the Bay State coast every year. After New York, the Boston Harbor shipping channel produces more whale ship strikes than any other area on the East Coast.

“One of our goals at the Science Center is to get people to understand how human actions affect the creatures of the sea,’’ science center staffer Karen Provazza said. “What better way than through telling the story of Tofu. Whales are so majestic and graceful. People respond to whales.’’

Getting Tofu from the waters off Cape Cod to the Science Center’s ceiling was a bold vision that took some strong organizing. She was found floating in the waters between Provincetown and Cape Ann, in whale breeding grounds about 40 miles east of Boston called Stellwagen Bank. She was towed to shore, and that’s when Lull got a call from Tom French, assistant director for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

With the Science Center’s support confirmed, French called Dave Taylor, a retired Byfield biology teacher who has also spent years nursing injured animals back to health as a state and federally certified wildlife rehabilitator, a pastime he still enjoys.

The two men are fast friends and former neighbors who have collaborated on dozens of whale skeleton salvage operations. As French cleared the myriad bureaucratic paths needed to take official possession of a 20,000-pound carcass of a federally protected species, Taylor started sharpening his knife.

Tofu’s sectioned remains were next taken to a Belchertown landfill, where nature removed much of the flesh from bone. A year later, Provazza joined Science Center staff to remove what nature had left behind.

“We spent a good part of that day pulling the tissue from bones. The texture was a lot like beef jerky,’’ she said. “But I can tell you, as we got a little deeper into the job, it got pretty aromatic.’’

Next stop for Tofu’s bones was hot soapy baths in the equally aromatic Seal Cove, Maine, workshop of whale assembly expert Dan DenDanto. After a few weeks boiling the fat from the bones, Tofu’s emerging skeleton spent the next few months drying in the sun.

Back at the Science Center, staff were planning the exhibits that would surround the skeleton and tell Tofu’s story.

A 3-foot-wide globe with a table of push-button, explanatory displays was built to illuminate Tofu’s migration routes up and own the Atlantic. Plexiglass-covered panels were glued to pictures of whales in all manner of acrobatics. Lift the panels to find scientific explanations of the whale’s purpose for doing each of the acrobatics.

A short distance away, a touch-sensitive television screen offers up whale songs, each with its own scientific explanation simultaneously displayed on the screen.

Presiding over it all is Tofu, gracefully arched in mid-breach as if she’d just jumped from the water.

“It was a complete surprise,’’ said Georgetown resident Pat Catalano after touring the Tofu display. “We didn’t even know they’d added this exhibit this year. It’s a wonderful upgrade to all the things they already have here.’’

That’s just what Lull wants to hear. The center works hard to keep exhibits interesting and up-to-date, she said, including building an interactive, multimedia educational theater three years ago. When the Tofu project came along, Lull got to thinking it might be a great new addition.

Big projects take big money: Tofu and all her exhibits cost $130,000, Lull said. The bulk of the money came from a grant from the Little Harbor Charitable Foundation, with assistance from the Living Environmental Studies Foundation and a dedicated membership that held a striped bass fishing tournament that covered remaining costs.

“We’re very pleased with the results,’’ said Science Center member Carolyn Cloutier, who worked on the tournament. “I love how they made it so interactive. It’s very educational.’’

Certainly, Catalano’s 11-year-old daughter, Katie, learned a thing or two about whales on their visit.

Not just about whales’ songs, what they eat and why they jump out of the water. She also now knows what they look like when they breach.

“I like the size and the beauty of it,’’ she said. “The skeleton shows a lot about its structure and what it must have looked like alive.’’

Uncommon bond

Tom French’s and Dave Taylor’s curiosity about whales was piqued 22 years ago when nearly two dozen were found beached off Cape Cod. Page 5