Caring for our whale bones

Caring for our whale bones

Lots of us care about saving the whales, but not many get as hands-on as technician Stephanie Ho. She’s spent the last nine months caring for whale bones in Te Papa’s collections. It’s a messy, smelly and painstaking job, but it’s protecting these important specimens for the future. Stephanie tells us more.

Stephanie Ho, 2019. Photo by Jack Fisher. Te Papa

Last year, Te Papa discovered that 54 of its marine mammal specimens had been affected by bacteria and become discoloured. This is an issue that museums have to keep an eye out for, as the oily specimens offer a great environment for microbes to grow.

After DNA testing identified what the microbes were, the team worked out the best treatment options. I came on board in September last year to carry out the treatment as a technician. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science and Biomedical Science, I did my Science Honours in whale palaeontology at the Melbourne museum, so this was a great opportunity to work hands-on with a collection.

Most of the bones are cleaned using bristle brushes and an ammonia detergent solution. It’s kind of like doing the dishes but with whale bones instead of plates. We used a dental aspirator [that sucky thing the dentist puts in your mouth] to drain the water out of the bones after cleaning. Then we place them an ethanol vapour chamber, which is basically a giant plastic bag where the ethanol evaporates and gives the bones a final sterilisation. Some really oily specimens got soaked in a tank, with a fish tank aerator to keep the water moving.

Cleaned whale bones in the conservation lab, 2019. Te Papa

It’s quite a precise process, we document everything carefully and use conservation-grade equipment. But it’s also pretty gross – at the end you’re left with a mix of spent detergent, oil, grease and dirt – it’s a bit of a soup!

It’s a pretty unusual job but it’s really satisfying. A lot of these objects now they’ve been treated will be here for years and years to come. It’s great to know that the work we’ve been doing is not just for now, it’s preserved them for many future researchers or to go into an exhibition.

And who knows if some of these species might be extinct in the future – these bones might be all we have left.

Now that I’ve finished the project here at Te Papa I’m looking forward to doing some travelling, and hopefully seeing some real, living whales in the wild.

1 Comment

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    Great work Steff, hope you are enjoying your travels!

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