At a Miramar beach, on a pristine afternoon last week, 81-year-old Ray Bandar got a lot of odd stares, pinched noses, and shrieks of revulsion. Not infrequently, bystanders have trouble holding back their stomachs around him.
It's partially his own fault, the retired teacher admits. Some onlookers presume he’s homeless or perhaps deeply disturbed. He dresses shabbily in a worn-out smock and torn-up ratty jeans stained with paint and pulp. His stench at times can be awful, smelling like he had just rolled around in the expired meats thrown out behind a butcher's shop. Bugs traverse his white mop of hair as he goes about his handiwork with a scalpel and two rubber-gloved hands that are covered in bloody gore.
For five decades, Bandar has been the guy authorities call whenever a dead seal, whale, dolphin or any other marine mammal washes up on the Peninsula shores. Last week, walking toward a days-old elephant seal carcass that washed up on the rocks 10 yards from the Miramar Beach Restaurant, Bandar unzipped his backpack, took out a meat hook and scalpel and proceeded to slice away at the 14-foot carcass. Hours later, he had decapitated the 4,000-pound marine mammal.
It's all for science, said Bandar, who is known as “Bones,” among his friends. Over decades, Bandar has cut, cleaned and collected thousands of bone samples — mostly skulls — of marine mammals for the California Academy of Sciences.
The academy hasn’t paid him for hacking away at animal carcasses, which he has done since 1958. He is passionate about his work.
Bandar said the Miramar elephant seal bull he was dissecting was a particularly valuable find because the animal was tagged. That meant the animal could provide a wealth of information based on where it originated and how it died. Bandar said he routinely takes the animal’s head and its baculum — its penis bone — to get the most information from the dead body.
“The skull gives us a lot of information,” Bandar said. “I’ve collected hundreds, I’ve got whole shelves full of marine animals.”
Over the years, Bandar’s recovery of countless specimens helped researchers find various trends in aquatic life, including the discovery that sea mammals suffer from osteoporosis and arthritis.
“He’s collected more marine mammal skulls than anyone else by far,” said Ranger Steven Durkin of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. “It’s just in his blood. Going over to his house is like entering a museum.”
But carving up cadavers on the beach is a more grisly sight than most people can take.
“It’s disgusting, I’ve never seen anything so revolting in my life,” said Carrie-Anne Conkel of El Granada who was jogging along the shore before stumbling onto Bander’s work. Standing a dozen yards away, Conkel said she was turning back rather than trying to circumvent the dead seal.
Over the years, Bandar says doing his job has landed him in some trouble. In 2004, Bandar was cutting up a huge elephant seal that washed up near the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay. A crowd of confused onlookers watched him from a distance as he sat directly on the rotting, weeks-old elephant seal with no shoes on and began cutting it up.
Within a couple hours, three policemen accosted him, saying bystanders reported him as a homeless man trying to eat the dead animal. Later Bandar found out another rumor that was spreading about him: that he was cutting off the elephant seal’s penis to sell on eBay.
“People usually just move away from me if they’re disgusted,” Bandar said. “Look at what I’m doing. I’m not going to wear my best clothes.”
But Bandar is the first to admit his vocation goes beyond just a love of science. Trained originally as an artist, Bandar says that collecting interesting animal skeletons is also a way for him to appreciate the beauty of bones.
“I look at bones as a biology project, but also as a work of art,” he said. “They’re pieces of sculpture.”
He says a visit with his newlywed wife on their honeymoon to the Smithsonian and Natural History Museum of New York inspired him for his lifelong vocation. Seeing the museums’ huge dinosaur skeleton displays immediately encouraged him to follow suit. Driving back home to the West Coast with his wife in their convertible, the newlyweds soon picked up some roadside company, including a full horse skull and pelvis in Kansas and a deer vertebra and sheep skeleton from Arizona. From there, Bandar says he was hooked.
Focusing primarily on marine animals today, Bandar is fully licensed through San Mateo County, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to dissect dead sea animals for science. He estimates he picks up about 100 skulls a year on average.
Bandar retains a bit of his art training on the job, delicately slicing the carcass with a scalpel like a painter dabbing a brush on a palate. It would certainly be easier and quicker to grab a cleaver or hacksaw for the job, but Bandar insists on making sure the bones are undamaged.
Bandar says he loves his job, even though many people question why someone would do it for free. Bandar says the worst thing about the job is how awful the stench can be.
“The smell gets in my clothes, and then people get away from me,” he said. “What made me start doing this — I don’t know.”
As he spoke, a mother and three pre-teen girls walked near the edge of the beach bluff. Seeing Bandar with bloodied hands dissecting an unidentifiable meat lump — the four spun on their heels and hustled away as fast as they could.