Many of the students at John Muir Elementary School had never seen a whale before the 30-foot skeleton of a juvenile cetacean arrived in their auditorium this week.
“I think the whale is awesome!” fifth-grader Angel Cardona exclaimed. “I think John Muir is really lucky that we have a whale. It’s like our school is a museum!”
The man behind the whale, Director Dan Sudran of the non-profit Mission Science Workshop, thought it was even better.
“The way we see science, we’re willing to do stuff that most museums are not willing to do,” he said. “It’s totally hand-on, no ‘Oh my God, don’t touch that!’”
As Sudran spoke, a group of fourth- and fifth-graders were handling vertebrae the size of hubcaps, sketching and measuring them before slotting them back into the whale’s spine. Others were examining the whale’s brush-like baleen, which carried an odor that made some children hold their noses.
The dead whale washed up on the beach near Sudran’s Pescadero home last summer, he said. He saw the carcass as an opportunity, immediately securing the federal permits necessary to acquire it. In August, Sudran and dozens of volunteers used saws and knives to recover the bones, which Sudran then cleaned in his yard.
“My concept was a whale in a box,” Sudran said, explaining that he would drive the whale from school to school, allowing children to reassemble the bones themselves.
John Muir is the first school to host the whale, but Sudran already has appointments at two more San Francisco schools this year. He hopes to take the 1,000-lb. skeleton to other California cities as well.
Teacher Sara Liebert said the whale was giving the children, many of whom come from low-income homes, more than just a lesson in marine biology.
“It lends itself to all learners — the tactile, visual,” she said. “It gets kids engaged, especially for the English language learners. It introduces kids from this demographic to a new world.”