project
Whale on the wharf

photo by: Betsy Carlson

Status: current

Project summary:

On Union Wharf, along the waterfront of Port Townsend, WA, you will find a fully articulated, 42-foot male gray whale skeleton on display. He died, emaciated, at the start of a gray whale Unusual Mortality Event, declared in 2019. Locals call him Gunther.

photo by: Betsy Carlson

In May of 2019, the 42-foot carcass of a male gray whale washed up on the shores of northwestern Puget Sound. But that was not the end of his story, just the beginning of another chapter. 

Today his complete skeleton is on permanent outdoor display, on Union Wharf, along the waterfront of Port Townsend, WA. It was given the nickname “Gunther” the gray whale by veterinarian Dr. Stefanie Worwag and her husband, retired police officer Mario Rivera. 

The death of this whale was one of many North Pacific gray whale mortalities between 2019 and 2023. In that time, nearly 700 gray whales died and washed ashore on the west coast of North America, from Mexico to Alaska. The cause of this surge of gray whale deaths, defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as an Unusual Mortality Event (UME), is not yet fully known. Changes to our climate and its impact on marine ecosystems, including the food sources on which these whales depend, may be the cause. Scientists continue to monitor and investigate this disturbing trend.

When CRC-1727 (aka Gunther) washed ashore, the National and Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Mammal Stranding Network (MMSN) took action. Coordinated locally by the PTMSC and working alongside network members, Cascadia Research, and SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research (SR3), scientists and volunteers towed the whale to a nearby beach and conducted a necropsy. 

While his cause of death was inconclusive, it was clear that he was facing an extreme lack of food; he was emaciated, his blubber thin and dry, with little in his stomach besides eelgrass and small pieces of plastic. Eelgrass is not normally a food source for gray whales, and it was determined that Gunther was “desperation feeding”.

NOAA seized this opportunity to spread the word about these unusual deaths (UME) and Gunther quickly made national and international headlines when a local couple, Dr. Stefanie Worwag and Mario Rivera, volunteers with the Stranding Network, decided (after checking with adjacent neighbors) to allow him to decompose naturally on the private beach in front of their Port Hadlock home. 

photo by: Betsy Carlson

Worwag and Rivera then gained permission from NOAA to articulate Gunther’s skeleton, (originally to be on their property), and began a multi-year rebuilding process. They asked for advice and assistance from industrial designer Les Schnick and shipwright Ric Brenden, who volunteered to create a mount for the massive skeleton. Their highly skilled craftsmanship and attention to detail, turned a large pile of bones into the magnificent gray whale skeleton exhibit on Union Wharf. 

photo by: Betsy Carlson

By 2022, the couple knew the finished product would be a popular attraction and approached PTMSC for suggestions for a public display location, leading to a collaboration with the Port of Port Townsend and the City of Port Townsend. PTMSC secured donations and permits needed to complete the installation so that his story could be shared.

photo by: Gabriele Sanchez

Whales like Gunther the gray whale, and all of the other magnificent marine mammals living in the Salish Sea, are iconic and beloved symbols of what it means to us to live in such a magical place. They demonstrate every day just how vast and powerful nature is. And through the dedication and hard work of our community, they have the power to teach the world that our actions matter to all of the creatures with whom we share planet Earth. 

Timeline of the stranding

  • May 2019 – Stranded on Olele Point, Port Ludlow
  • June – August 2019 – Towed to Point Hudson, necropsy, decomposition on shore, skull floated and bones moved to storage at Stefanie and Mario’s 
  • 2020 –  COVID hits, bones cleaned and painted, flipper assembled, skull moved to Les’ workshop 
  • 2021 – Skull assembled, pipe fit for backbone, vertebrae drilled, wooden spacers made, rib cage assembly begins, more painting
  • 2022 – Complete rib cage, scapula and flipper site measured, finish vertebrae to tip of tail, Union Wharf location selected, more painting
  • 2023 – Metal legs fabricated and installed, test assembly, transport to Union Wharf, final installation complete Aug 2023

If you find a stranded marine animal on shore please call:

West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network Hotline: 866-767-6114
East Jefferson County call PTMSC: 360-385-5582 x 103

Learn more about PTMSC and the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.


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