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UAS Sitka Whale Lab Offers Opportunity to Experience a 4-D Whale Necropsy from the Comfort of Your Computer

Through the use of 3-D scanning technology over time (hence 4-D), the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) Whalelab has developed a free virtual portal that allows broader access to this experience.

Sitka, Alaska

Date of Press Release: November 19, 2021

Most whale biologists spend their careers in boats getting a glimpse at whales only when they come up to the surface to breathe or occasionally to feed. Being able to walk right up to a whale, and even look inside its body, offers scientists and stranding network volunteers a rare and meaningful opportunity to learn from whales at close range. Through the use of 3-D scanning technology over time (hence 4-D), the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) Whalelab has developed a free virtual portal that allows broader access to this experience.

If You Can Scan a House, Why Not a Whale?

Affiliate professor Ellen Chenoweth came up with the idea of a virtual whale necropsy in fall of 2020 as many student activities, including Sitka’s annual Whalefest science festival, moved online. UAS Professor of Marine Biology, Jan Straley, and Chenoweth requested a grant from the University of Alaska Biomedical Learning and Student Training (BLaST) program to develop a virtual whale watch. This video would provide information about how scientists study whales on the water. Chenoweth suggested requesting additional funds for Josh Houston, a Sitka-based drone pilot and digital 3-D modeler to 3-D scan a dead whale in case one happened to show up during the next year. She had seen Josh’s stunning 3-D models of buildings and mountains. Initially appearing as high resolution photographs, the user can spin around and zoomed in and out to view the subject from different angles. She thought a virtual necropsy could be an interactive and impactful application of this technology to get students up close and personal with a dead whale. Unlike all the virtual substitutes for in-person activities, this virtual event would give students an experience they are unlikely to have any other way.

The Whale Shows Up

On Sunday, March 14th the US Coast Guard flight crew reported a dead whale on a popular remote surf beach on Kruzof Island. That same day, Josh and Ellen managed to catch a ride with Dennis Rogers on the M/V Northern Song to 3-D scan the whale by drone. “We found the whale belly-up, bloated, but still in decent shape on a wide flat beach, suitable for gathering a necropsy team,” notes Chenoweth. The necropsy occurred later that week on a beautiful sunny day following a stormy night. Incredibly, the whale had turned over in the surf and was now in a prone position allowing us to scan its dorsal side as well. The team collected measurements and photographs led by UAS Assistant Professor of Fisheries Technology, Lauren Wild. The team peeled back the layers of skin and blubber, and gathered tissue samples from the internal organs. Josh used his iPad and photogrammetry software to scan different cavities of the whale as the team exposed them. In the following months, Josh returned to the whale three more times documenting the results of wave action, decomposition and scavenging on the carcass until only human and animal tracks remained to mark the site.

Gone But Not Forgotten

During the following months, Chenoweth was able to enlist the help of Dr. Kathy Burek Huntington to provide her expert analysis of the scans as a veterinary pathologist. Using the platform sketchfab, she inserted annotations, references and photographs to provide more information. She also linked the scans chronologically so anyone can follow their curiosity and explore the whale themselves.

The necropsy will be incorporated into distance-delivered University courses beginning with Biology 175: Current Topics in Marine Research (aka the “Whalefest course”) this fall. This necropsy will also be used as part of a new one-credit course at the University of Alaska Southeast Sitka Campus, One Health Perspectives: Marine Mammals of Alaska beginning in March 2022.

“The open access format will allow it to be used broadly by high school classrooms, college courses, researchers, or by other creative people that wouldn’t have this experience in any other way,” noted Chenoweth. She is a UAS Affiliate Professor, as well as a Research Advising and Mentoring Professional (RAMP), with the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Biomedical Learning and Student Training (BLaST).

Access the 4-D virtual necropsy and watch the Whales in the Wild video about boat-based whale surveys at the University of Alaska Whale Lab website.


The necropsy team was led by Dr. Lauren Wild, a research biologist and professor of Fisheries Technology at the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS-Sitka), under the authorization of NOAA Fisheries. She was assisted by Ellen Chenoweth (UAS-Sitka), Leigh Engel (Sitka Tribe of Alaska), Molly Grear (Pacific Northwest National Laboratories), Ted Hasty (NOAA Fisheries Law Enforcement), Josh Houston (Jfactory), Stacy Golden (Sitka School District), Paul Norwood, Brooke Schafer, and Pat Swedeen (City of Sitka). Learn more about the stranded animal response and what to do if you find a dead or stranded marine mammal. The US Coast Guard originally sighted and reported the whale and provided transportation to and from the site. Dennis Rogers (M/V Northern Song), Mike Litman (M/V The Royal Baby) also provided transportation out to the whale.

Drew Stafford at the USCG District 17 office was integral in scheduling the effort through the Sitka Air Station. Erik Oredson and Treston Taylor were pilots on the flight crewed by Amanda Perham, David Braaten and William Flowers on the first flight to the whale. The second flight was piloted by Mike Seavey and Michael Carrol and crewed by Desean Brown and Raul Perezrosario.

This virtual workshop was assembled and annotated by Dr. Ellen Chenoweth and Dr. Kathy Burek Huntington and funded by UAF BLaST. This scan and technical expertise were provided by Jfactory. Jan Straley (UAS-Sitka), Taylor Stumpf (Metlakatla Indian Association), Lauren Wild, Matt Goff (Sitka Nature), Sadie Wright (NOAA Fisheries), Maggie Castellini (University of Alaska Fairbanks), Steve Lewis, Emma Park (UAS-Sitka), Mandy Keogh (NOAA Fisheries), Brooke Schafer, Paul Norwood, Paul Kraft (UAS-Sitka) and Ashely Szoke (UAS-Sitka) provided feedback.

Additional Resources

Press Release Contact

Keni Campbell
University of Alaska Southeast
(907) 796-6509