How to Build a Blue Whale Without Having Seen One: Part II

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The 28-foot rear section of the 94-foot model of the blue whale being raised to join the front section in the Hall of Ocean Life in 1969. The two sections will be locked together. Photo courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

Read Part I—about the difficulties of procuring the largest animal on Earth and an inconvenient string ban—here.

Tensions at the American Museum of Natural History ran high as the design for the whale was being finalized in 1966. Richard Van Gelder—the museum’s chairman of the Department of Mammalogy, the whale’s chief designer and the hero of our story—almost quit after the museum's director, Dr. James Oliver, asked him to revise the model so that its mouth was open. This ran contrary to what was known about whales and the plans for the model: Whales were thought to feed in a horizontal position, and the model whale was semi-vertical and poised to dive.

Van Gelder responded with a two-page memo that argued the change would not only delay construction and invite “potential basketball stars armed with garbage” to vandalize the model—it would also be scientifically inaccurate. The director stood down; Van Gelder won the argument and kept his job.

Outsourcing Leviathan

With the design done, it was finally time to start bringing the whale to life, or as close to it as possible. Displayers, Inc., a  firm that specialized in producing museum exhibits; StructoFab, a manufacturing company in Georgia; and Svedrup & Parcel, the civil-engineering firm that designed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, were tasked with turning Van Gelder’s design into something material. He provided them with detailed instructions—Remember to double check the number of ventral grooves!—and then waited, hoping for the best.

In late 1967, huge hunks of steel and blocks of molded polyurethane began arriving at the museum and piling up on the floor. Workers from StructoFab followed, and began to piece the whale together in the Hall of Ocean Life. They attached the exterior pieces to the steel frame and then covered the whole thing in fiberglass for painting.

Between the paint that was absorbed by the whale’s “skin” and the lighting in the hall, the whale came out looking the same shade of gray as a naval battleship. “Even with my lack of knowledge of blue whales, I knew that this was wrong,” Van Gelder wrote. A whale expert from the Canadian Bureau of Fisheries was brought in to supervise the paint job and consult on the color scheme for both the flesh and the eyes. Leaving things in capable hands, Van Gelder went off to Africa on other business.

Heavy As A Whale (Almost)

When Gelder got back home, the whale was supposed to have been already raised to the ceiling, painted and ready to go. But it was still on the floor, still gray and still not finished, and there were less than three months before the refurbished hall was to be unveiled.

The issue was weight. Plans called for a four-ton whale, but the finished product was 10 tons. A heavier-weight polyurethane, a little extra paint, and a number of other changes had all added up, and no one was sure if the whale could be mounted to the ceiling. Instead of simply painting over the gray like they’d originally planned, the museum sanded the first coat of paint off to shave six hundred pounds. Two different teams of engineers were then brought in to assure them that the ceiling would hold the whale at its current weight.

By the end of 1968, the whale was ready to get off the floor. This was maybe the only step of the whole project that went off without a hitch. “[It] went like clockwork,” Van Gelder wrote. “It was slow, it took all day, but nothing went wrong.” The painters finished up the detail work and Van Gelder had one finishing touch: placing and attaching 28 fine hairs to the whale’s chin. A decade after planning first began, the whale was ready for display in February 1969.

The Whale Evolves


Prior to the reopening of the renovated Irma and Paul Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life on May 17, 2003, the plastic wrapping was stripped away to reveal the remade and repainted 94-foot-long great blue whale model. Photo courtesy of AMNH/M.Carlough.

In the early 2000s, the Hall of Ocean Life went through 16 months of renovations and exhibit updates, including some 600 new animal models and some touchups to the whale that brought it up to speed with the latest cetacean research. The eyes were made less bulgy, a few spots were repainted and the jawline was reshaped. A new blowhole was made, since the old one was in the wrong spot—they’d simply guessed on the placement in the 60s, since the photos they could find didn’t show one. The whale also finally got an anus, which it had been lacking for 34 years, again meeting a standard of scientific accuracy that would have made Van Gelder, who died of cancer in 1994, very proud.


The whale under construction. Photo Courtesy of AMNH/D. Finnin.

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November 20, 2012 - 8:00am
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