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Bones from the Deep: The Articulation of Orca Whale T-44

Bones from the Deep: The Articulation of Orca Whale T-44

Rebuilding an orca whale’s skeleton so it appears to come back to life is no easy task. But on Salt Spring Island, tucked behind a row of cedars, is a workshop filled to the brim with bones from the deep, and a group of people dedicated to putting them back together again.

Story and photos: Taylor Roades.

It’s here where Mike deRoos, Michi Main and their team at Cetacea are slowly and carefully articulating skeletons of marine mammals from the waters around Vancouver Island, including the skeleton of transient orca T-44. Unlike their resident cousins, transient orcas roam the coast. T-44 was spotted in North Island waters a confirmed 161 times in his 32 years of life. He was first caught on camera in the area in 1978, and while he never made a permanent home here, he died in 2009 near Port Hardy just shortly after being spotted swimming near Telegraph Cove.

Jim Borrowman, the president of Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre, has commissioned many skeletons to Cetacea during his 35 years with the centre. T-44 is the latest installment to the centre’s collection, and the whale’s connection to the North Island means it’s a fitting place for him to rest. 

Part art and part science, articulating an orca whale is a multi-stage procedure. First, the team cleans the bones—all the remaining flesh must be removed. This is a specific and delicate process: at times, the bones are cleaned in the waters the whale came from; other times, they’re placed in a pile of manure and dirt to speed up the decaying process. With the latter, the temperature is important; composting can generate a lot of heat and if the bones get too hot they will start to disintegrate.

After each bone is sparkling clean, the team can start meticulously ordering the pieces and placing them into the right spots. Mike welds a custom frame for each animal and rebuilds the skeleton in a specific position—this is the creative and artistic part of the process. Informed by research and ecological science, Mike shapes the skeleton in a way that mimics a specific posture or pose. In the case of T-44, he’s posed to look like he’s diving for seal pups and fish. It’s a realistic position—when T-44’s body was recovered, he had two seal pup tags in his stomach, as well as over 300 seal claws.

The whole process can take up to a year and a half, at which point the skeleton is ready to be transported to its final resting place.

If you were lucky, you may have seen T-44 heading up Highway 1 on the back of pick-up truck last June. It took a team of eight volunteers to set him into place at the Whale Interpretive Centre, which you can now visit on your next road trip to Telegraph Cove.

Discover more of Cetacea’s work.

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