How a Gray Whale Turned Blue, and the Mystery of the Pigeon Droppings

by Yvonne Vávra

It’s quite a peculiar problem to have for a creature of the sea, but there was no denying it: This whale was dusty. If the famous blue whale of the American Museum of Natural History wanted to live up to its name again, it needed its trusty friend Trenton Duerksen to give it its annual scrub-down. 

Duerksen is the museum’s exhibition maintenance manager, and last Thursday it was time again to grab his vacuum, step on the cherry picker and dust off the 94-foot-long 21,000-pound model hovering in the museum’s Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life. A real whale of a task: It takes two days and three to four dust bags until the replica of the largest animal ever known to have existed is restored to the shiny pride of the museum once again.

“I specifically like cleaning the throat grooves, because that’s where all the dust collects that’s rolling down from the whale’s back,” says Duerksen, all smiles and sparkling eyes. Understandably, few jobs are so immediately rewarding. Every swipe turns gray back into blue. 

25 gallons of cobalt and cerulean blue paint were used when the whale was recolored and respotted in 2003. It was part of a renovation aiming to make the model more anatomically correct. The model had been constructed in the mid-1960s based on a photograph of a dead whale. But now that live footage and detailed pictures were available, it was time to give the whale a revamp. Its eyes got a more realistic new design, the tail was tapered, and even a belly button added. And no, just in case you were wondering like me, the belly button does not require any special scrub treatment. Quite different from the blowhole, however: The whale duster leans out of his cherry picker, vigorously brushing a year’s worth of dirt out of it. He sticks the vacuum inside — it’s big enough for the industrial appliance to fit. All this he does with his left arm, mind you, holding on to the crane with his right. Just your average Thursday morning whale cleaning. 

However, this year saw one irregularity. Dean Markosian, director of project management, brings up the pigeon accident. “It must have gotten inside the museum somehow,” he says. “It happens.” No one actually saw the bird, but there were unambiguous droppings on the whale. In terms of marking your territory, it seems a touch overly ambitious for the tiny creature. But, hey, this was a New York pigeon. Enough said.

Anyway, in case you ever find yourself in a similar situation: Dish soap and a floor scrub brush proved to be the best method to give a whale back its dignity.

ABSURDITY, NEWS | 6 comments | permalink
    1. Christine E says:


    2. Cato says:

      What a great article! Topical, well written and fascinating. Thank you, Yvonne!

    3. Drianne says:

      Can’t wait to see the whale again in its full glory 🙂

    4. Weird That Way says:

      Where’s a Roomba when you need it? . . .

    5. Gloria P. says:

      If the whale gets covered with so much grit annually, obscuring the proper hue of the whale, why doesn’t the AMNH clean it more frequently–say every six months? It might also be easier to clean if it were cleaned more frequently.

    6. Chris Daftsios says:

      I’ve loved that whale since I moved to the city twenty one years ago. This article made me love it even more. So sweetly comic, these words brought me ache from my years of absence from that amazing space. I shall see you soon old buddy! Thank you Ms. Vavra!