Volunteer and Intern Blog Posts

Digging up a dead dolphin: cleaning the carcass

We all gathered around the grave to receive a briefing from Sarah Tubbs, chief dolphin excavator, at 3pm. The plan was to set up separate stations for the unearthed dolphin bones to be washed, dried, drawn, numbered and finally, assembled. Jasmine and I were tasked with the cleaning and drying of the bones. The plan was to start with the skull and to work our way down the skeleton one at a time to make identification and assembly of the skeleton easier.

We filled two red buckets with fresh water (one for scrubbing and the other for rinsing) and laid out old pillow cases outside the dive shed. Latex gloves on, tooth brush in hand and sat in front of our buckets, we anxiously waited for the first bone. After hearing shouts of success, I was handed the what was said to be the jaw bone and informed that the body “hadn’t decomposed as much as hoped”. The smell wasn’t pleasant, and the bone was accompanied by a mixture of clay and rotten flesh sludge. However, I was loyal to my post and found satisfaction in removing the grime from the little bones given to me.

The skull… was horrific, and it wasn’t just the skull, there was very much semi-decomposed brain still within the structure. The effluvium emanating from it brought tears to my eyes, and repelled spectators, who watched excitedly from a safe distance. The tooth brush quickly became redundant, so I resorted to forcing the stewy substance through the small crevices and cavities with my fingers whilst trying to supress involuntary gags. Once clean, you could see the beautiful mixture of creamy white, stained brown and speckled surface of the bone. I was told that these variations were because of the dolphin corpses’ position in the ground which caused different rates of decomposition. I could have sat and inspected it for longer, but the smell was unbearable, and it still had stubborn gunk inside the skull, so I handed it onto the next team with a smile.

The bones just kept on coming, and it wasn’t long until the last vertebrae of the dolphin was washed, drawn, labelled and positioned. The Irrawaddy dolphin skeleton was finished, and we all spent some time inspecting it with a sense of pride. Despite the smell, which I hope to never ever experience again, I am proud to say that I have cleaned and inspected every bone of a unique, and unfortunately endangered dolphin species. Although, maybe next time I’ll volunteer to simply assemble the bones.