A Whale of a Tale: The Story of Right Whale #2030

On October 21, 1999 a call came in from the National Marine Fisheries Service to PRI's director, Dr. Warren Allmon. A 44 foot-long northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) had been spotted dead off the coast of Cape May, New Jersey.  If PRI could help flense the whale (separate the flesh from the bones), it was welcome to have the skeleton.  Early in 1999, PRI had expressed some interest in obtaining a whale skeleton through the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, so the call was not completely unexpected. Needless to say, it was an opportunity PRI could not afford to pass up. Within six hours of the initial call, the first of two PRI vehicles had left for Cape May.  Three days later, on Sunday, October 24 1999, the bones of right whale #2030 arrived at PRI.

Vertebrae from right whale #2030 back in Ithaca, NY, being covered in horse manure (above). The manure cleans the bones.

The death of #2030 was the beginning of something big for the Paleontological Research Institution. The National Marine Fisheries Service notified PRI of the availability of a right whale skeleton upon discovery of the body of #2030. PRI staff traveled to the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Cape May, New Jersey, where the whale had been towed ashore. Along with several others from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, PRI staff and volunteers participated in flensing the whale and preparing it for transport.

PRI staff and volunteers lay the bones of #2030 in a bed of horse manure (above).

Flensing is a messy process: using only hooks and long knives, the extremely heavy, oily flesh is removed from the skeleton. Weighing approximately 30 tons, it took two days to flense the 44-foot long whale. The skeleton was then transported to Ithaca via a flat bed truck. Back at PRI, an army of staff and volunteers worked together to unload the skeleton and bury the bones in a bed of horse manure. The manure provides an ideal environment for the remaining flesh and oil to be removed from the bones over the course of several months.

#2030 as seen from above, entangled in fishing gear. From the Center for Coastal Studies, Massachusetts.


Whales often become entangled in fishing gear. More than 60% of right whales bear the scars of past entanglements. A severely entangled Northern right whale, identified by researchers as #2030, was spotted off the coast of Massachusetts in May 1999. Multiple strands of fishing rope were wrapped three times around its body, causing a wound to cut 7 inches into the blubber.
#2030 as seen from above, entangled in fishing gear. From the Center for Coastal Studies, Massachusetts.
Researchers lost track of #2030 until early September 1999, when she was sighted in the summer feeding waters off the coast of Nova Scotia in Canada's Bay of Fundy. Rescuers succeeded in cutting two of the three encircling ropes in early September, but the third remained. By attaching buoys with VHF and satellite transmitters to the entangling rope, researchers continued to track the movements of the whale. After the initial rescue attempt, #2030 headed south along the coast towards winter breeding waters. On October 21, 1999, the body of an entangled right whale was discovered floating off the coast of northern New Jersey. The position of the entangling rope wrapped around the upper body and cutting deeply into the blubber, unmistakably identified this whale as #2030.

Right Whale #2030 alive in the Atlantic Ocean in 1999. The wound from the entangling fishing gear (the cause of its death) is visible across the body.

Fewer than 300 Northern right whales remain in existence today. They are the most rare species of whale in the world and are considered endangered. The loss of even a single individual is cause for concern. Once the bones are assembled, #2030 will be one of the very few mounted right whale skeletons in the world. PRI will be able to exhibit a complete skeleton of very high quality, providing an important educational resource for teaching visitors of all ages about environmental conservation, evolutionary biology, and marine ecology, as well as pay tribute to the life and death of 2030.

Right Whale #2030's Final Resting Place

The bones of right whale #2030 are were assembled throughout the summer of 1999 in PRI's greenhouse. The skull (right) has been fortified (below left) and all bones have been weighed. Skeleton assemblers worked with Ithaca engineer, Peter Novelli, to make sure that the mounting materials can withstand the enormous weight of the bones!

The 842 1b. skull of right whale #2030 rests on a custom-made cradle in PRI's greenhouse.

Cleverly disguised bolts (left) have been placed in several weak spots to strengthen the skull. They are painted to match the surrounding bone.

The 7 cervical vertebrae (right) of a right whale are fused together...our cervical vertebrae, which make up our neck, are not fused. All mammals have 7 cervical vertebrae except the sloth and the manatee...they have only 6!

Left, A whale's vertebrae get smaller and smaller toward the tail. Shown above are the smallest of the 23 caudal vertebrae.

The bumpy growths (middle) found on the cervical vertebrae indicate arthritis.

Right, a frront view of the seven fused cervical vertebrae. The hole through the middle is the opening for the nerve cord.

The metacarpal bones of the flipper (above) have tiny holes for conncective tissues. These bones are like our knuckles.

Small bones of the flipper (phlanges) are similar to our finger bones (above).

The vertebrae have been mounted in three sections on specially designed steel supports.

The lower jaw bone (above) is extremely difficult to drill through...the outer bone is nearly as strong as steel!

A worker operates the drill (above) as it bores a hole through the jaw in preparation for support mounts.

Each vertebrae had 2 holes drilled into it and were fitted with mounts. Pipes were then installed through the holes as supports. One section of the vertebrae, at right, are temporarily resting in a wooden cradle.

After three years and countless staff and volunteer hours, the whale skeleton is fully assembled and hanging in the atrium of the new museum. Theatrical riggers I. Weiss took just two and a half days to move the completed skeleton into the building and suspend it permanently in its new home. The whale will be highly visible from many vantage points inside and outside the museum.

A volunteer crew removes the greenhouse structure in preparation for the move to the museum.

Paul Strom supervises the crew of riggers from I. Weiss (right) as they prepare to move the trestle supporting the rib cage. The skull and tail have already been moved into the museum at this point.

As workers disassemble the trestle that had supported the rib section for over a year, the riggers use chainfalls to lift the completed section into place.

PRI staff adn a team of volunteers quickly attack the scapulae and flippers to the thoracic (rib) section of the whale moments before it is hoisted.

PRI staff with the I. Weiss crew that brought the whale in: (left to right) Will Ober (PRI), Dan Dietrich, Andrea Dohar, Lawrence Clayton, Jamie Allspaugh, Valerie Furey (PRI), and Paul Strom.

Right Whale #2030 as seen from the lobby of the Museum in 2007.