Tale of a Whale

A clutch of fifth graders here recently did for a Minke whale called Martin what all the king's horses and all the king's men were unable to do for an egg called Humpty Dumpty.They put him back together again. At least all 46 of Martin's bones.

Martin may have thought the jig was up when he became ensnared in a lobster pot rope 260 feet down in the North Atlantic off South Harpswell, Maine, and never made it back to the surface. But that was only the beginning of a new adventure on land.

The College of the Atlantic (COA), a young ecology-minded institution in Bar Harbor, Maine, rescued this 8,300-pound 20-footer from oblivion. Science faculty member Dr. Sentier Rommel got the idea of turning Martin's skeleton into a knocked-down, hands-on traveling exhibition for teaching people -- from little tykes to octogenarians -- about whales.

Martin's new career as a teaching aid began last spring. It would be hard to say how many times he has been taken apart and put together again. But Whales on Wheels has now logged more than 5,000 miles carting Martin's structural innards to schools, museums, nature centers, and senior-citizens' groups all around New England. More than 1,300 children have reassembled him.

In April the program trucked Martin down to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Va., spreading the word about this new style of whale watching. Now another Whales on Wheels program is being set up at the Whale Center in Oakland, Calif.

Sally Crissman, who teaches natural science at Shady Hill School in Cambridge , says she thinks one reason children like whales is their immense scale. ''Children are intrigued by things that are very big or very small, and the scale of the whale is just wonderful.''

Martin is such a hit with children, who put him together like a monumental jigsaw puzzle, that he has become a pioneer, the first of a new breed of traveling skeletons.

''I just introduced a moose two weeks ago to some sixth graders in Maine,'' says Catherine Kiorpes, student coordinator of the Whales on Wheels program. ''We also have an owl on wheels and a harbor porpoise. And we hope to have a seal and a fox.

''Some day we even hope to have a door-to-door dinosaur. Not a real one, obviously. It's kind of hard to go out and find one of those.But we've been experimenting with different methods of casting plastic. When we perfect it, we'd like to borrow a museum skeleton, cast it, and take that around to schools, too.''

Martin's disassembled spinal column lay like a jumble of spare parts on the carpet of a science classroom at the Shady Hill School as the bell rang and fifth graders piled in and sat on the floor beside them.

''I'm Bev,'' said Beverly Agler, coordinator of COA's Natural History Museum, ''and this is Catherine. Today we have our Museum Without Walls with us, our Minke whale skeleton. In about 20 minutes you'll get a chance to try your hand at putting it all together. It'll fit like a big puzzle.''

First, a short question-and-answer session to bone up on whale facts from baleen to blowholes, from dorsal fins to dolphins (which are in fact small, toothed whales).

Then came the moment the class was waiting for: the opportunity to reconstruct Martin, the smallest of the baleen whales -- the type that have no teeth but catch their food by straining seawater through the broomlike baleen inside their mouths.

Whales on Wheels has designed a simple metal rack on which Martin's disjointed spinal bones can be assembled like a railroad train behind the big skull, with its long, pointed snout bone.

The puzzle is in four sections: neck vertebrae, rib, mid-back, and tail sections. Beverly divides the class into four groups who gather around their proper signs at the back of the room. ''Pick one or two people to come up here at a time to find the bones for your group,'' she directs. ''Then take them back to your sign and put them together on the floor. After the vertebrae are put together, you guys can bring them up to the stand one at a time. But remember, don't mess up your order!''

The room explodes into action. Voices become shrill: ''How many bones do we need? We have eight. We need nine. There's one right there. I bet you this one goes in here. Turn it around. Take one back. Oh yeah, that's right. There, that did it! Yay! we're through.'' In almost no time Martin begins to shape up. The excitement quiets down as the last part of the tail section finds its niche.

One by one each pupil carries a vertebra up to the rack and gently fits it into place. Now the class begins to see the beautiful symmetry and gradation of Martin's structure with his high spine. ''It looks like an airplane!'' one child exclaims.

Viewing the skeleton from the side, one notices the subtle differences in height, width, and thickness of the bones which result in a gentle rising curve that peaks near the middle of the back, then tapers off to the base of the tail. Seen from end to end, the bones form another curve that swells outward slightly near the center of the body. The slightest error in reassembly interrupts the harmony of the line. One boy spots a flaw. ''This needs to be switched around,'' he says. ''This is thinner, it goes in here.''

Beverly congratulates the class: ''Only one mistake out of the whole thing!''

There's something fluky about a whale's tail, she explains. There are no bones in the flukes. They are formed of cartilage ''like your nose. This allows for more flexibility.''

The bell rings. On the way out, the class files past the skull to take one lingering look down through Martin's blowhole in the top of his head, through which he breathed.

If one picture is worth a thousand words, how much is Martin worth as a teaching device?

''You could see,'' Mrs. Crissman says, ''that some of the children thought they had the vertebrae perfectly lined up when they actually didn't. To do it right, they had to look much more closely than they ever would look if they were just seeing a picture. They could pick up a vertebra, examine it, turn it over, hold it in their hands.''

Catherine says she thinks that ''after a while, students stop hearing. They can only take in so much information. But by experiencing something like this -- actually working with the bones themselves -- they learn so much more. Their questioning process begins. They touch the bones and all of a sudden they are excited.''

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