5 May 2024

'Leaping out of the water': Whale skeleton given second life in makeover

| Claire Sams
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Old Tom has had an upgrade - and some TLC.

Old Tom has had an upgrade – and some TLC. Photo: Eden Killer Whale Museum/Facebook.

It was slow, careful work handling the bones. The dedicated team had to take the skeleton apart and set the 200-odd bones aside for cleaning and repairs, before it could be put back together with a new look.

Over a week in April on the NSW Far South Coast, Old Tom was taken apart, cleaned, measured, repaired, weighed and moved into a new position within the Eden Killer Whale Museum.

Museum preparator Dean Smith travelled to Eden from Victoria, after being brought on board to assist with the plans to move Old Tom’s skeleton.

“This was a huge week. In reality, we would allow three weeks to a month for something like this,” he said.

“There were some long days and some very tired volunteers, but amazingly, it just went so well.”

In life, Old Tom was the leader of a group of killer whales that would make regular visits to Eden waters, and hunt baleen whales alongside humans.

After his death in 1930, his skeleton was eventually mounted in the Eden Killer Whale Museum.

“Because we were pulling Old Tom from his original old frame from the 1930s, we had to assess the structure of that [system],” Mr Smith said.

“A lot of the wires had failed – they had corroded or were old copper wire, which went green and left staining all over the bones.”

Once he was disassembled, conservators from One Conservation could step in for repairs and then Mr Smith could rearticulate Old Tom in a new position.

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The museum’s collection manager Angela George was among the staff and volunteers also involved in the works.

“I don’t think people comprehend how much work goes into this sort of thing,” she said.

“He was completely dismantled by Tuesday afternoon, and then we started cleaning.

“As you can imagine, it was a bone by bone exercise, so it was very slow going.

“It’s not as simple as just pulling a skeleton apart, giving it a wipe down and then putting it back together.”

Museum staff and volunteers partnered with the experts, who handled the more specialised work.

“It was an on-the-go training session,” Ms George said.

“There’s certain equipment that we’ve had to use – you can’t get a damp cloth and wipe him [Old Tom].”

A photograph of the front of a whale skeleton

Old Tom used to have a flat spine, but now he is “leaping out of the water”, Ms George says. Photo: Angela George.

While Old Tom was in a decent condition – for a skeleton that is nearly 100 years old – Mr Smith said there was some wear and tear.

“Some of the bones were originally placed the wrong place, and we noticed there were bones missing, as well,” he said.

“The pectoral fins – the flippers – had a lot of the bones in the wrong position and some were missing.”

A new material has also been placed in between each vertebrae.

“Intervertebral disks are normally cartilage, and back in the 1930s when he was assembled, they just used timber disks against the bone.

“We have replaced those with conservation-grade ethafoam. We decided to do that in black so it highlighted the bones.

“The bones really pop now.”

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While the Eden Killer Whale Museum had to be closed for the works, fans of Old Tom can now see him in a new location within the museum.

“Once we finished the cleaning and repairs, he was able to be moved downstairs and rearticulated,” Ms George said.

“He’s had a straight articulation until now, but Dean positioned him so he’s got a curve in his spine.

“Old Tom is looking down on the visitors – it looks like he’s leaping out of the water – and he is suspended from the ceiling, rather than being floor mounted.”

He will now be periodically lowered for cleaning.

Eden Killer Whale Museum is located at 182 Imlay Street in Eden, and is open 9:15 am to 3:45 pm (Mondays to Saturdays) or 10:15 am to 2:45 pm (Sundays).

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