TREMONT, Maine — Dan DenDanto did not construct his garage for this sort of thing.
Built about a decade ago to fit three vehicles, the structure from the outside resembles many other residential garages on the “quiet” side of Mount Desert Island, where pickup trucks and lobstermen workbenches are commonly found behind the overhead doors.
So when it comes to using the space to piece together the bones of a 52-foot-long right whale — larger than most school buses — it can get a little crowded.
“It won’t fit through the door with its rib cage assembled,” DenDanto said Tuesday about the skeleton as he weaved through a suspended maze of large bones spread about among the garage’s three bays. “It’s 10 feet wide.”
But for the carpenter and whale researcher, accumulating whale bones, some nearly 13 feet long, at his home in the local village of Seal Cove is worth the effort. The whale skeleton is one of two he is reassembling for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. After working on the project since last spring, DenDanto expects to finish preparing the skeleton, deliver it by truck and install it in the coming week. He’ll be paid $80,000 for his work, he said.
The adult whale, a female known since the 1980s as “Stumpy” by whale researchers for her damaged fluke, or tail, was killed in early 2004 by a ship strike off the mid-Atlantic coast. She was pregnant with a near-term fetus that did not survive the collision when she died. DenDanto and a few part-time assistants have been reconstructing the skeletons of both for the museum.
Stumpy was estimated to be approximately 35 or 40 years old by researchers on the East Coast who keep track of the endangered North Atlantic right whale population, which is believed to consist of approximately 400 individual whales.
“This particular right whale was studied pretty intensively,” said DenDanto, a graduate of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. “This is an iconic individual.”
In addition to being a carpenter and rearticulator of whale bones, DenDanto is a doctoral candidate at the University of Maine and a research associate at COA’s Allied Whale.
Stumpy, DenDanto said, was known to have given birth to other right whales over her lifetime, which scientists view as a crucial contribution to the population’s critically low numbers. He said researchers believe the injury that provided Stumpy her name was caused by a previous ship strike early on in her life. Right whales have a reputation to be slow moving and particularly vulnerable to ship strikes, he said, and female right whales even more so, because of the coastal areas where they tend to be found when pregnant or with young offspring.
Putting Stumpy’s skeleton on display, and that of her 17-foot fetus, should help draw attention to the plight of North Atlantic right whales, he said.
“They stand to have a pretty emotional impact by displaying the two [skeletons] together,” DenDanto said. “Because of her story, the conservation message will have more impact.”
The MDI man is familiar with museum displays of whale skeletons. By his estimate, he has rearticulated roughly a dozen whales since 1993, the first being a relatively small minke whale he assembled for the Bar Harbor Whale Museum.
Since then he has rearticulated the skeletons of four humpback whales, a killer whale, a pilot whale, two other minkes, a northern bottlenose whale, another right whale and a sperm whale. He now has a business, Whales and Nails, specifically dedicated to this kind of work.
Museums where some of DenDanto’s work is on display include the New Bedford Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Mass., the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Biology, the Nantucket Whaling Museum and the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, N.H. The two skeletons he is finishing up will be the first two to be shipped outside New England, he said.
“I’ve garnered a reputation now,” DenDanto said. “Most of it is by word of mouth.”
He guessed that, nationwide, there are maybe between 60 and 70 rearticulated whale skeletons on display at museums and similar institutions.
Assembling the skeletons requires more than just an understanding of whale anatomy, according to DenDanto. He is not an engineer, he said, so his clients usually rely on architecture firms to determine whether a museum ceiling can support a three-ton whale skeleton.
Most of the whale skeletons he gets already have been cleaned of flesh and cartilage, usually by being buried in a manure pile for a year or two, but he sometimes has to clean or bleach them further, depending on the client’s wishes. He frequently replaces missing bones with plastic replicas made from other skeletons. For example, the fetus skull was never recovered, he said, and will be substituted with a model right whale calf skull provided by the North Carolina museum.
Piecing the bones together, he said, is a matter of getting the spacing right, securing them to one another with carefully welded and concealed pieces of steel piping and rebar, and filling in the sections where cartilage used to be. These sections, he said, are usually filled in with expanding foam that doubles as glue and a layer of papier-mache to help minimize the weight load, before being coated with a light gray epoxy.
The skeletons are never really complete until they are installed in the display institutions, he said. They are transported by truck usually in three or four sections to the display site, where DenDanto and his helpers secure the final connections before hoisting the skeleton into place. He estimated that to unload the bones of Stumpy and her fetus, assemble them into two whole skeletons and secure them in their display positions in the museum’s new 80,000 square-foot addition will take five days.
DenDanto said he is eager to be finished with the project, which kept him busy through the holidays. His wife, he added, is eager to get the mother whale’s rebuilt flipper, which resembles a giant human hand and is as big as a twin bed, out of the hallway of their house.
He said he has another project lined up that involves rebuilding two pilot whale skeletons for the Seacoast Science Center, but that one is not due until April.
“We’ll take a breather,” DenDanto said. “I want to celebrate Christmas.”
Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.