Photo by Jessica Keller: Seattle Pacific University professor Peter Moe, far right, and volunteers determine the best placement of the juvenile gray whale skeleton they assembled as part of a special class in the lobby of Eaton Hall, Sept. 2. Moe organized the project with the help of Highline College Marine Science and Technology Center director Rus Higley.
Photo by Jessica Keller: Seattle Pacific University professor Peter Moe, far right, and volunteers determine the best placement of the juvenile gray whale skeleton they assembled as part of a special class in the lobby of Eaton Hall, Sept. 2. Moe organized the project with the help of Highline College Marine Science and Technology Center director Rus Higley.
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Seattle Pacific University English professor Peter Moe’s fascination with whales started long ago as a child in Spokane.

Moe’s preoccupation with the mammals began when his parents took him to an exhibit that featured large models of whales hanging from the ceiling, which he admitted both fascinated and terrified him.

As an adult, Moe decided to celebrate the animals in a more permanent fashion: by bringing a whale skeleton to the SPU campus. Eaton Hall, with a small vacant area off the lobby and floor-to-ceiling windows, was the perfect location.

“I saw the empty space, and I thought, ‘Hey, we could put a whale right there,’ ” Moe said.

When he approached the dean about his idea, he was told that space was designed for that purpose.

“I mean, it makes sense. The space is perfect for that,” he said.

Finding a whale takes some patience, however, and Moe had never assembled a skeleton before.

“If I was doing this by myself, I’d be lucky to get the head on the right end,” Moe said.

Filing a permit with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launched his mission, and when he inquired about finding someone to help assemble the skeleton, he was told to contact Rus Higley, director of the Marine Science and Technology Center at Highline College in Des Moines.

Higley, who had assembled two whale skeletons previously, was happy to help.

Project whale skeleton officially started in February 2019, when Moe was told that a whale had washed up on Longbranch Beach, about an hour from Seattle.

Moe said he had been offered two other carcasses, but one was too small and far away, and the other was too large for the niche in the Eaton Hall lobby, which is 30 feet, 4 inches.

The animal that washed up at Longbranch Beach, however, was the perfect size. The 29-foot, 16,000-pound juvenile female  gray whale. The necropsy determined the whale was undernourished and likely starved to death.

Turning a 16,000-pound whale carcass into just bones is not an easy, or fast, process. First the body was towed to Gig Harbor and hoisted ashore. Then it was taken to a farm where volunteers spent seven hours removing the flesh and fat from the bones in a process called flensing.

“And it was the nastiest thing you could ever imagine,” Moe said, adding the blood, guts and blubber were messy and the smell horrible.

Afterward, the bones were buried in horse manure, which ate away the remaining flesh and sinew and leeched the oil from the bones. The bones spent six months drying in the manure, after which they were dug up, washed and transported to SPU where biology students arranged them. In May, the bones, which at that point weighed 518.3 pounds, were placed on the roof of Marston Hall and left for four months so they could bleach.

On Sept. 2, with Higley leading the effort, the whale, which had been assembled using glue and wire, was hung in its final resting spot.

“It’s been fun having this project be so student driven,” Moe said.

Moe said eight donors and almost 150 volunteers, including 20 students, made the project possible. The associated three-week course, Biology 49-50: Whale Skeleton Articulation, also wrapped up in August, with Higley in charge of the assembly, and Moe’s coursework featuring literature on whales.

“It’s probably the only time we’ll have this class,” Moe joked.

One thing everybody agreed on was that the whale would remain nameless.

“We intentionally did not name her because names are for kids and pets, and she is neither,” Moe said, adding the students agreed they did not want the whale to become a mascot, either. “I think there’s a certain reverence there. I think we’re comfortable calling her a whale because she’s not a pet.”

With the whale on display for everyone to see, Moe can cross bringing one to campus off his bucket list.

“I feel like I’ve kind of scratched that itch,” he said. “I don’t know — maybe there’s a sense of closure.”

To read more about the project, go to www.peterwaynemoe.com/building.