• P.O.V
  • By Emma Brain
  • Agency

Together Again

Collectively, Michi Main and Michael de Roos are the company Cetacea. The Canadians are experts in the field of skeleton assembly and are in town to re-hang Perth’s iconic blue whale for the new Western Australia Museum. They caught up for a chat with TF.A’s Emma Brain, and this is what they had to say.


I’ve heard you described as skeleton articulators. Can you describe that that means?

Mike

Yeah, that’s an interesting term. I guess articulating a skeleton means to put it together. So, you’re joining the bones to create a fully assembled skeleton.

Michi

So, we’re basically really, really excited about biology and puzzles. We’re puzzle makers!

Mike

We’re both trained biologists. I have a Bachelor’s in biology and I specialized in marine biology and the biology of marine mammals: whales, and seals, and sea lions. And Michi has her Masters in…

Michi

I actually specialized in Marine ecology and conservation, but then Mike sort of directed me into this world and it was so captivating that I kind of just dove in and never looked back.

Mike

We met in University, in Canada.

Michi

Yeah, in biology class, actually. Oddly enough!

Mike 

I guess to get back to your question, what is a skeleton articulator? Our jobs, or what we do, has developed into this thing where go to a dead whale that’s washed up on a beach. We take it apart and clean all the bones, which is a whole big process.

I have quite a background in animal behaviour and I do quite a bit of marine mammal fieldwork out on boats, watching whales swim around and do what they do. And so, we integrate the latest scientific research on whale behaviour and movements, we use drone footage and underwater photography of whales swimming around. And we take all of that knowledge and come up with a story that we want to tell with the bones.

It’s really unique for every display and it depends on where the skeleton is going, the size and shape of the museum, and the display space, and how people are going to be interacting with it.  You bring all of that information together. The first few skeletons I did really looked like dead animals.

Michi

And that’s what conventionally has been done, because people’s experience with these animals is when they’re dead on the beach. And other than that, they’re really elusive. Our view of them is this dorsal fin sticking out of the water or occasionally breached. We haven’t really had a real window into what they’re actually doing in their life.

And so, we have this opportunity with our work to share with people what their life actually looks like based on the research that’s being done. A lot of the animals are tagged now. For this blue whale project that we’re working on, there’s amazing research available. They have tagged blue whales and modelled their underwater movements; it turns out that they’re acrobats.

These animals are very large, and their bodies are designed to be in the water floating. And so usually when they come on shore, there’s some amounts of trauma to the skeleton just by the sheer bulk of it being moved around and experiencing gravity.

As well as evidence of how it died?

Michi

Sometimes that too. That’s an interesting one because often we want to share with people what destroyed the animal’s life. And so, part of that is that any trauma that happened to their skeleton, including their death, and so often we won’t fully repair that kind of damage.

We feel such connection with animals, particularly big ones, there must be a deeply emotional aspect to you work as well as it being a privilege?

Michi

It’s such a privilege to work with the animal and then to get to the point where you can share that with a greater audience is joyous. I mean, the story, and like I say, we try to keep the animal’s death part of the entire story because there is a lot that’s really sad. A lot of the deaths are toxin overloading or related to ship strikes and other human influences. And so that part of it is really, really sad. And yet it feels really good to be able to share that with people too so that we know.

And there’s many times we’re we are like, what are we doing? It’s just like, get normal jobs. But that time when you have installed a skeleton and you see the people coming in and you start to see this gut reaction that people have. And even sometimes you see people moved to tears or the kids come in and be like, what is this thing, I’m just so curious, I need to know everything I can about killer whales or whatever. And that is the part of it that really, really feels amazing.

It keeps us wanting to do this weird job.

We spend hours, like hundreds and hundreds of hours with this individual animal. We kind of get to know it. It's really a connective personal experience. That's one thing I really love about it - Mike

Mike de Roos and Michi Main

Kieran mentioned a project that you did with the Shíshálh Nation near where you live in Canada. Can you tell me about that?

Mike

We live on a small island and then we had to go to the big island and drive and then take another ferry and another ferry over to Shíshálh, which is part of the mainland, but kind of on this big remote section. I was on my way over to help an old school friend inspect a house he was thinking of buying…

Michi

This was like a day before Christmas and so Mike went on his own and I stayed at home with the kids. And then he’s going across on the ferry and he’s like, “There’s whales.” And there were whales bow riding on the ferry. Killer whales.”

Mike

Yeah, I called my biologist friends at the biological station. I said, “You should come to check out these whales,” because they keep tabs on which whales are around and stuff. I couldn’t get a hold of anyone, but…

Michi

To make the story short…

Mike

The next day, I just finished crawling through the crawl space in an attic and I said, “Don’t buy this place.” It’s full of work. And we get a text saying there’s a dead killer whale on the beach. Like, 15 minutes from where we were.

Michi

Mike calls me and he’s like, “So there’s a dead whale, should I go check it out?” And I was like, it’s Christmas, please don’t go, but yes, I guess, go.

Mike

So, I drove down to the beach and the fisheries guy was there and the veterinary pathologist had just shown up to do the necropsy, which is basically an autopsy on the animal. And he looks over at me, “Mike, what are you doing here? This is great. We have a team.” We only have a couple of hours to get all this work done. And then he said, “This is Sid from the Shíshálh Nation and they’re really interested in this animal and maybe you can help them preserve the skull.”

Do they have a particular spiritual connection to the killer whale?

Michi

Very much so. The killer whale is their family totem.

Mike

So this is like a deceased family member that’s come back to the family.

Michi
And there were all these crazy coincidences with elders who had passed within this period and ideas that maybe the spirit of the whales have come in because of a connection to that.

Mike

So I threw on a spare pair of boots and rain gear and Sid said, “Yeah, can you help us keep not just a skull but the whole skeleton? We have a museum here that would be perfect for…”

How big is this thing? How big is a killer whale?

Mike

A truck. 25 feet.

A lot of flesh and big heavy pieces. Sid called his road maintenance crew down with the backhoe. Thank goodness. That was the only way… it ended up being two of us finishing at like 11:00 at night. The fire department brought lights down for us.

Messy

Mike

Very messy.

It’s a bit of a learned skill, how to take one of these animals apart to pieces that you can move and get the bones out. So yeah, we did that. And then the very next day, the First Nations mentioned that one of their members had started this composting facility where they do all sorts of composting, including municipal marine waste and dead fish from fish farms. It’s like the size of a football field. A football field in a tent. It was a perfect facility to put the fleshy whale bones into and have all the meat removed…

How long does that process take?

Mike

It depends

Michi

Normally we leave skeletons in for about six months. And we monitor them. It depends on the composition of the compost because as you probably know, composts get really hot. It’s a bit of a balance between cleaning off the flesh and cooking the skeleton, which isn’t optimal. Far from optimal actually.

We explained to them how to monitor it and so they did that composting piece of the puzzle. And then they collaborated on design and were heavily involved in the installation part of it.

And where was it installed?

Mike

They have a museum, a First Nations museum in Shíshálh.

Michi

And it was an amazing project just because…. this one was just held by the community in different ways. It just feels like that skeleton is where it was meant to be.

Mike

There’s a lot of heart to it. They had this big, huge, sort of grand opening ceremony and served 200 people this amazing feast of salmon and elk meat.

Michi

We have also run community-based projects where we organize everything and set things up. And that means you put the tools into the hands of interns or community members, who have maybe never even held a drill before. And that’s also another really meaningful thing. Because there’s so much to learn in a project like this.

Mike

A project like that brings tons of people out of the woodwork. Retired machinists and high school students…

Michi

Totally misfit high school student who like just struggled her way through school and nobody could connect with her. But she just blossomed in our workshop and was amazingly artistic. There’s this level of connecting with the skeleton, as we talked about before, but also in these projects, a chance and opportunity to connect with people in a really unique way.

That’s Brilliant. Thank you.

Mike

Did we answer all of your questions?

Yeah. You did, and more.

Mike

I feel like we just talked.

That’s what I wanted. I’m really happy with that. Thank you, that was very good.

 

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