Marine biologist Dan DenDanto owns a company aptly named Whales and Nails. The “whales” part is creating museum exhibits – cleaning, articulation, and restoration of mammal skeletons. The “nails” is custom building, metal fabrication, and carpentry. This knowledge is needed to glue and connect the bones of humpback, fin, mink, pilot, and right whales – and an occasional giraffe. DenDanto says that when he’s doing more whales than nails, business is good – but the nails part is usually more profitable.
DenDanto is strategically based in Seal Cove, Maine, where whales are often seen off the coast. His shop resembles that of any small building contractor – except for the carcasses composting in piles of manure, and the collections of miscellaneous bones. He has a 60-foot-long rigging area where whale skeletons can be assembled for natural history displays. These include skeletal exhibits for New Bedford Whaling Museum, Nantucket Whaling Museum, Glacier Bay National Park, and most recently, Spinnaker, a 35-foot-long humpback whale for the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. DenDanto is still working on the fluke for Spinnaker, a fiberglass model that will include the tactile characteristics and pigmentation patterns of a whale’s tail.
“I hope Whales and Nails articulations convey more about the life than death of the subject, but often the circumstances of their death is an important story line of the exhibit,” he says. He is also a senior scientist at Allied Whale, a marine laboratory at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, that focuses on the identification and research of whales.
He spends his summers off the grid – no running water or electricity – as Allied Whale’s station manager on a remote, treeless island, a prime location for fieldwork. Most of the work of Whales and Nails is put aside while he’s offshore, but this year his busy schedule includes the rendering of a reticulated giraffe for the Museum of Science in Boston.
“It takes an artist’s sense of sculpture and construction proficiency to transform hundreds, or thousands, of pounds of individual bones into a single, cohesive and provocatively displayed animal,” says DenDanto, who spoke with the Globe about his whale tales.
“I became interested in whales as a young boy growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. I was fascinated with their size as the largest mammals on Earth, and inspired by the ‘save the whales’ movement. As I pursued marine biology, I received training in taxidermy and exhibit fabrication at the College of the Atlantic. I worked as a research analyst on a study of North Atlantic fin whales and supplemented my income as a general residential carpenter.
“I’ve always been a creative person interested in the maker culture and was asked to be involved in a whale skeleton articulation project. It was a learn as-you-go process, as there are really very few guides for doing this kind of work. Victorian-age articulations on display in hallmark museums around the world are plagued with anatomical inaccuracies and generally lack the inspiring, life-like postures sought today. I gained knowledge of anatomy with builder’s sense of how to glue and connect the bones together, gradually acquiring first-hand experience with whale skeletal anatomy and biomechanics. My professional commission was over two decades ago when I prepared a minke whale skeleton for a small interpretive center in Bar Harbor. I’ve learned so much in cleaning and degreasing bones, preservation techniques, metal fabrication methods.
“I think my work today is more sophisticated, but the passion is the same – I want to see the whale, not what’s holding it up and I want it to invoke movement and life. In truth, none of what I do is rocket science, or really that specialized. [It’s] scaled up in size and the combination of skills is unique. For a large baleen whale, the ribs might be seven to eight feet long and weigh 40-50 pounds apiece. Its skull could weigh over 1,000 pounds, so the engineering is challenging.
“Of course, the passing of a whale is sad. To be trusted with this work is an honor. To add value to the death of these magnificent natural wonders is humbling and profoundly rewarding.”