Alaska whalebones find home halfway across world

KEYWORDS: whale bones whale jawbones Whitby England arch at the historic seaport Anchorage Alaska Sister Cities whalebone arch bowhead whale endangered species Miss Alaska Inupiat dance Alaska Highlanders whale oil

AUTHOR: Jane Zsabo, Anchorage Daily News

There’s been lots of jawboning in Whitby, England, lately, about jawbones from Barrow — two 16-foot, 350-pound remnants of a bowhead whale that have finally been installed as an arch at the historic seaport.

This should be the talk of Anchorage too, since it’s the culmination of a major Sister Cities project. Several Alaskans traveled to Whitby recently for the April 6 ceremony to dedicate the new arch.

The town wanted a new whalebone arch to replace one that had stood some 40 years as a landmark commemorating a whaling history dating back to the 18th century. Norway had given the old arch to Whitby around 1960. After it deteriorated, Whitby asked its sister cities if they had any similar bones.

In stepped the Anchorage Sister Cities Commission and Chris Kennedy, one of our city’s commissioners for Whitby. After inquiring at Barrow, he heard what might have sounded fishy elsewhere but was true and good news for Whitby — one of Anchorage’s six sister cities: A couple of whale bones from a subsistence hunt were basking on a Barrow beach.

Getting the bones from Barrow to Whitby was no easy task. Years of bureaucratic and legal setbacks and roadblocks faced Alaskans and Brits. The move even required an act of Congress.

The whale was taken in the fall of 1996. The bones lay on the beach for about four years. After the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management said yes to Whitby’s request, cleaning, transportation and regulations became the issues.

One bone of contention, for example, was the fact that the bowhead whale is an endangered species, so it was very difficult to export its bones under the Endangered Species Act.

“The biggest obstacle, really, was the regulatory one,” said Kennedy, “the fact that we worked and worked with federal agencies for the better part of a year trying to get the permits in order, and very complicated permits. Ultimately they just told us it could not be done.”

The process was so discouraging the organizers almost gave up, but U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens saved the day by getting the issue placed as a rider on an appropriations bill, which passed.

Permits required that the bones be dry and clean. In the fall of 2000, the bones had been steam-cleaned and covered in plastic wrap in Barrow, but algae and mildew developed as the bones waited there through 18 months of permitting hassles.

When they were inspected after arriving in Anchorage on March 20 last year, they were discovered to be soiled with algae, rancid whale oil and whale tissue.

In stepped Claire Knudsen-Latta, who volunteered to oversee the cleaning to satisfy part of the requirements for a Girl Scout Gold Award.

“There’s nothing like congealed whale oil for being the most slimy, foul-smelling substance known to man, especially when it’s been cooped up in plastic for a year with various organisms growing on it,” said Kennedy, who was the main coordinator of the whale bone project. He and others helped Knudsen-Latta, now a student at the University of Iowa.

“Transportation was also difficult,” he said, explaining that the bones flew on a vintage 1940s plane from Barrow, and for the Anchorage-Seattle flight were dressed “diaper style” in oil spill absorbents by two pediatric nurses: Kennedy’s wife, Lynne Gallant, and Sue Alexander, also a Sister Cities commissioner. After flying from Seattle to Scotland, they were trucked six or seven hours to Whitby.

The bones arrived there last spring but still suffered from leakage of whale oil from their marrow. Upon the recommendation of experts, the bones were buried in horse manure for several months to draw out the oil.

Finally, this March, the 25th anniversary of the Anchorage-Whitby relationship, the town took down the old arch and with a crane erected the Alaska bones on a cliff above the North Sea, tying them together at the top with an 18th-century harpoon tip.

The whalebone arch is part of the town’s trio of historic landmarks, which also include a famous abbey and a statue of native son Capt. James Cook that’s identical to Anchorage’s statue downtown.

The April 6 dedication drew a crowd of about 350, including an Alaska delegation led by Miss Alaska Peggy Willman. An Inupiat, Willman represented Anchorage and the North Slope Borough as co-donors of the bones.

Also in attendance were Knudsen-Latta with her father, Leroy Latta; her scout leader, Barbara Ashton; and pipe major Dan Henderson and drummer Jason Agre of the Alaska Highlanders, who piped in the procession for the ceremony.

At the arch, Miss Alaska performed an Inupiat dance and the Alaska Highlanders played “Alaska’s Flag.”

After the formal events, Miss Alaska visited various schools, including those that have a pen pal relationship with Eagle River Elementary School. Knudsen-Latta met with Girl Guides, the British equivalent of Girl Scouts.


Daily News reporter S. Jane Szabo can be reached at Visit the Alaska Daily News website.

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