Quick Take:

After taking a beating from the elements at UC Santa Cruz’s coastal campus, the structure supporting the blue whale skeleton affectionately known as Ms. Blue has been deemed unsafe. But fear not, says Seymour Marine Discovery Center director Jonathan Hicken — the bones are staying, and the center wants input on the next chapter of the whale’s legacy.

Last week, the Seymour Marine Discovery Center announced it plans to disassemble the blue whale skeleton exhibit, affectionately called “Ms. Blue,” that has graced the outside of the building for nearly 40 years because the structure supporting the whale’s bones has become unsafe.

A Q&A with Seymour Marine Discovery Center executive director Jonathan Hicken

The skeleton has been displayed outdoors on UC Santa Cruz’s Coastal Science Campus since 1985. Both the bones and the steel structures holding them together have degraded from years of intense coastal winds and salty ocean air.

More than a million people have visited the 87-foot-long blue whale over the years, said Jonathan Hicken, executive director at the Seymour Center. The center is exploring ideas to help Ms. Blue’s legacy live on, including 3D-printing replicas of the bones and mounting them on a new structure, creating a virtual animation experience, installing an artistic rendition of the whale, or letting the bones lie where the steel structure once hoisted them up.

The Seymour Center is not publicizing the day when Ms. Blue will come down to avoid drawing crowds and creating a safety hazard. However, the center will be holding a celebration of Ms. Blue’s life on Sunday from 10 a.m. to noon.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lookout: Why are the metal supports holding up Ms. Blue unsafe?

Jonathan Hicken: Ms. Blue has been up for 20-some years now, in this exact spot on these exact structures. The steel that we used has reached the end of its serviceable life, which is a somewhat expected thing in this environment. It can get pretty intense out on this little point at the Seymour Center with the wind and the salty air.

Lookout: What would cause Ms. Blue to collapse unexpectedly?

Hicken: A combination of things. The structures themselves have lost their integrity, meaning we don’t trust them to hold the weight of the animal anymore. We’ve been thinking about this for a year, evaluating it with engineers and experts who do bone mounting around the world. After the storms [last winter], we thought the wind itself is a real risk. Coming into what a lot of experts think is going to be another intense winter, combined with the weakening structure, we decided that it would be safest for everybody to lower her to the ground now instead of nature doing it for us.

The blue whale skeleton exhibit at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, affectionately known as
Jonathan Hicken, Seymour Center executive director, with “Ms. Blue.” Credit: Alix Soliman / Lookout Santa Cruz

Lookout: How was the skeleton found and assembled here?

Hicken: This blue whale washed up in 1979. An intrepid collection of faculty, grad students, volunteers and people who are interested in what had happened banded together and collected the bones. They actually had to have some of them airlifted on a helicopter to this site. At the time, there was nothing here except for the Long Marine Lab itself. The Seymour Center wasn’t here yet — this was all a Brussels sprout field. The process, which is pretty common for displaying real bones, is to bury them underground and let microbes do their thing to clean it up. Ms. Blue has actually been on several different sites in, say, like a 200-yard radius from where she is now since the ‘80s. She was mounted here at her current site around the time that the Seymour Center opened in 2000. So she’s been exposed to these elements for 40-plus years.

Lookout: What are you going to do with the original bones?

Hicken: We love Ms. Blue. We are heartbroken about this, too. I cannot emphasize enough, this is only about safety. So we’re going to just lower her to the ground right here on site. We’re going to remove the structures and lay the bones on the ground. The bones are still going to be here for public viewing, and we will still educate people about her life and blue whales.

Lookout: Does she have a forever home planned yet?

Hicken: She’ll stay here while we are evaluating options for what to do next. We’re evaluating anything from cleaning her up and remounting her as she is, to reconstructing some of the bones that have decomposed over those 40 years. We’re evaluating a number of different options, and with those options comes a vast range of price points. So we’re also evaluating the interest and the hunger in this community to help support this next step. I do invite anybody who would be interested in and contributing to that, both financially and creatively, to reach out.

Lookout: What are some of the options for Ms. Blue’s next phase?

Hicken: At the highest price point would be to do a high-fidelity replica of Ms. Blue, to the point where it would look like real bone in a way that Ms. Blue doesn’t look like right now because she’s painted and coated. That would cost us somewhere between $2 and $3 million. On the other hand, I think that we have some options like reconstructing her with alternative materials, doing more of an artistic installation that pays homage and respects the legacy and also brings a new artistic flair, or new energy, or even a message along with it. We could 3D-print Ms. Blue, for example, that’s an option that would run about $1 million.

The blue whale skeleton exhibit at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, affectionately known as
Credit: Alix Soliman / Lookout Santa Cruz

Many of the options on the table for us long term required that we 3D-scan the entire skeleton. We worked with a company called Halon, an entertainment company out of Hollywood that does special effects for blockbuster Hollywood movies like “Avatar” and “Spider-Man” and a whole bunch of CGI [computer-generated imagery]-heavy hits. They came out and completed a 3D scan. That was thanks to some generous members of the community who helped us do that. And now, what we can do with that — and this is kind of more of a shorter-term option — is we can take that scan and create an augmented-reality experience with it. So you as a visitor, looking at Ms. Blue on the ground, can hold up your phone or an iPad and see Ms. Blue in her full glory, as if she were really there through the screen of your phone.

Lookout: Where are you looking for funding for this project?

Hicken: This is going to have to be the community banding together to make sure that the legacy continues. We’ll reach out to foundations that are interested in preserving historical sites like these, but we’re also talking to individuals in the community to see who might have [an] interest in the third era of Ms. Blue’s life, if you will. We’re also raising money to work with Halon Entertainment to animate Ms. Blue in a 3D digital format — imagine Ms. Blue’s skeleton all of a sudden having organs and muscle and skin, so you’re seeing the full majesty of a blue whale right in front of you as if she was really there. You can imagine her opening her massive jaws, scooping up a cloud of krill and swimming. This is the power of using that 3D scan for something that we could do in the shorter term. And in the longer term that 3D scan is important because with that model, we will be able to replicate her either with an alternative material, or in that sort of high-fidelity manner that I talked about. Either way, we needed that 3D model and the community showed up to make that happen.

Lookout: What impact do you think this next phase of Ms. Blue’s legacy will have on the Santa Cruz community?

Hicken: We estimate that Ms. Blue has impacted at least a million people. That’s the number of people we’ve counted that have come through the doors since the Seymour Center opened in the year 2000. And that doesn’t count all the people who come walking their dogs, riding bikes or going for a jog down here. We’ve learned a lot about how children learn about science in the years that the Seymour Center has been here. And we know that play is a really important way for children to learn about these things. So that is another thing that we’re considering, is what would it look like to create a more playful Ms. Blue experience?

Lookout: What does Ms. Blue represent, in terms of whale conservation?

Hicken: The plight of whales is one of both deeply upsetting impact, but also one of success. There’s some really amazing success stories based on bold decisions that leaders in this community helped make — we think back to the activist roots of Santa Cruz and some of the folks who helped propel the marine sanctuary and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Ms. Blue is a symbol of surviving a period of whaling. We believe that she was about 50 when she died in 1979, which means she survived this intense period of whaling. And since then, her species and others have rebounded because of some of the policies and protections that have been put into place.

The blue whale skeleton exhibit at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, affectionately known as
Ms. Blue is currently supported by weathering steel structures, which are vulnerable to strong wind and salt blowing in from Monterey Bay. Credit: Alix Soliman / Lookout Santa Cruz

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.