As a cattle rancher, San Gregorio resident Erik Markegard stakes his profession on his ability to move large mammals.
But last month the self-proclaimed cowboy received an odd challenge. Could he and his pickup truck move the remains of the biggest animal on Earth?
That animal, a dead blue whale, washed up on the shores of Bean Hollow State Beach in October after a watercraft is believed to have struck it. After a set of lengthy permits last month filed by science teacher Dan Sudran, the largest bones of the leviathan have been approved to be mounted at Pescadero Elementary School.
But Sudran had a problem -— how do you carefully haul a 1,500-pound mandible, a jawbone as heavy as Half Moon Bay’s heftiest pumpkin? He was considering hiring a helicopter, but then he decided to call up Markegard.
“I haul a lot of heavy stuff, but I’ve never hauled anything like a whale bone,” he said. “I went down there to look at it, I told him let’s try to cowboy up. … Let’s try it the old-fashioned way.”
That meant tying ropes around the huge bone and getting a team of helpers to move it inch by inch from the freezing ocean water. It took hours to coordinate, but the 14-person team was able to lug the bone over to Markegard’s truck and eventually lift it into the bed.
“It was pure caveman physics,” Sudran said. “It was like two and two and two came together. It was perfect.”
Sudran teaches in San Francisco through the Mission Science Workshop, a hands-on nonprofit laboratory for students that he founded in 1991.
Living in Pescadero, Sudran explained that he has amassed a small collection of bones from his regular hikes in the area, which he uses to teach children about biology. When the dead whale washed ashore near Pescadero — the first since 1979 — Sudran realized bones of the creature would be perfect for local education.
“I thought it would be amazing what the kids could learn from a skeleton like that,” Sudran said. “It dawned on me that if I could figure it out logically and get permits, I could get these bones.”
It felt appropriate, Sudran said, to have the whale bones that washed up at Pescadero stay in the local community.
The remains of sea mammals are tightly restricted under federal and state law, making it a crime to take any part of a whale that washes ashore. In Northern California, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco typically has first dibs on any sea carcass, and more than a half dozen other agencies usually claim samples, leaving few opportunities for anyone else.
But Sudran saw his chance when he noticed that most of the usual science institutions weren’t pouncing on this whale. Most of the other organizations explained they already had plenty of whale bones.
So Sudran decided to make a go for it, and he applied for permits through a hodgepodge of agencies. He also brought up the idea to Pescadero Elementary School Principal Pat Talbot.
“I told her it’s probably crazy, but this huge whale bone could be in front of your school,” he recalled.
Talbot agreed the bones would be a powerful tool for teaching because most of the student body was already interested in the huge whale that washed up on their shores. Everyone could smell the rotting carcass, and many students had visited the beach to see the whale firsthand.
“There was a real local connection,” Talbot said. “This wasn’t just a whale bone in a museum. This was one they saw, and certainly smelled, from the beginning.”
In the end, the small South Coast school received approval to take the huge mandible — part of which was broken. Sudran took other various bones including ribs and vertebrae and has been donating them to other researchers and educators.
For now, the bones are actually in Sudran’s backyard. He lives right in the neighborhood of Pescadero Elementary. The hauling team brought the bones to Sudran’s backyard to let the largest bones dry out before bringing them out to the school, which should lighten the weight of the bones considerably.
As its largest bone, the mandible of a blue whale is crucial for drawing in huge amounts of seawater and krill to feed the gentle beast. The blue doesn’t have teeth on its jaws, but rather baleen, which are used like a sieve to expel water but retain krill.
The jawbone will be mounted at the school by the start of the next academic year. Talbot has suggested that the school could develop some teaching curriculum around it. Off the cuff, she proposed students could learn math by calculating the krill a whale would need to eat, or learn writing by composing stories about the whale journeying across the sea.
Sudran proposed the jawbone could also make an excellent addition to the school playground — it’s large, sturdy, easily climbable and not sharp at all.
Markegard, the cowboy hauler, says he was happy to use his pickup truck to help the kids at Pescadero Elementary, and he’s reminded of it every time he gets behind the steering wheel.
“My truck, my clothes, everything still reeks of dead whale,” he said. “I’m lucky I’m married, otherwise I’d never get a date.”