Face of Shark Day to sign off

Bill Hanshumaker, who has presided over Shark Day and Fossil Fest, examines an elephant seal exhibit he assembled at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. (Photo by Bret Yager)

NEWPORT — The skeletons are like old friends.

Youngsters who traipse through Hatfield Marine Science Center, eyes wide to grinning whale skulls and the skeletal frames of elephant seals, can thank Bill Hanshumaker for the introduction.

The man and method behind some of the center’s most compelling exhibits, he’s spent more than two dozen years doing just about anything to get the right bones.

— Like digging them out of whale carcasses so ripe with gases that less composed co-workers hurled in projectile fashion. Or burying a killer whale head in front of the science center — so he could keep an eye on it and make sure no one stole the teeth —  then digging it up three years later only to find the brains had to be extracted with a tablespoon before the skull could be put on display.

Famed naturalist David Attenborough liked to make a statement that is today one of the driving tenets of the science community: “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experiened.”

This theory is the reason visitors can count the age rings in a whale tooth, touch the coarse skin of sea stars and get as close as they do to the work of scientists who in earlier days made many of their discoveries behind closed doors.

The big grantors funding a lot of science have come to demand this public accounting, explained Hanshumaker, who will be retiring at the end of June.

“If you make discoveries and you don’t communicate it to the proper audiences, it’s like you didn’t use it,” he said.

But Hanshumaker experienced the principle himself as a youngster when Jacques Cousteau lit a fire in his mind, propelling him into study of zoology at the University of Southern Florida.

“You have to attract people, then you have to engage them,” he said.

Hanshumaker spent 17 years at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, where he was responsible for bringing life to skeletal displays. He began working at Hatfield in 1993, where his tasks — now largely funded by Oregon Sea Grant — included managing the visitor center. The mandate to convey wonder ran through many years of work.

If you can hold a hermit crab in the palm of your hand, you will want to save it. If you touch an octopus or stand inside the ribcage of a whale, you connect to the entire ocean.

Putting this potent theory of science communication into concrete steps can take some dirty work.  Whether it involved dissecting sharks under hundreds of staring eyes or using a watering trough to cook the flesh off of putrid whales bones, Hanshumaker logged plenty of stories, and they’re the stuff of local legend.

Some 10,000 people have participated in two of Hanshumaker’s key endeavors, Shark Day and Fossil Fest, held in the winter to help draw crowds during the off-season. Both have been around for a couple of decades now; both help light the lamp of wonder.

Fossil Fest is like the Antiques Roadshow of Hatfield, with scores of people bringing in their particular findings for identification by a range of experts. Shark Day involves a very public necropsy of a shark, both under direct observation and via internet broadcast, with samples helping scientists with such studies as the age of the shark, the hunt for parasites and the search for cesium contamination that could point to reactor pollution from Fukushima.

Sometimes it’s a struggle to make science flashy, and Hanshumaker searches for ways to boil down complex themes into something compelling.

“When you’re in an auditorium, you’re really happy if people don’t fall asleep,” he said.

Hanshumaker has a few more projects to wrap up before retiring permanently from the narrow corridors of Hatfield. He is overseeing a volunteer effort to assemble the 14-foot skeleton of a gray whale born prematurely and stranded in 2004. He’ll continue to try to boost the popularity of a website where people can report beached animals. He’s also involved in an initiative with five OSU computer science students to develop a model that draws on weather and ocean data to see if particular circumstances correlate with sea turtle strandings. The information could then be communicated to groups like CoastWatch to be on the lookout for turtles in trouble.

Marine biology students who might fondly remember walking past whale carcasses that Hanshumaker was treating with maggots — their chewing was so loud it sounded like the crinkling of cellophane — will have to hope someone continues offering these vital learning experiences.

Hanshumaker’s replacement will need rubber boots and a strong stomach.

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