The Bone Keeper


Coming across the new Gallant’s Channel bridge

connecting Radio Island to Beaufort, a small white

trailer is visible in the distance to the left just

beyond some sailboats and a parking lot. It would

be easy to assume that the trailer is some forgotten

piece of the past, perhaps something that someone hasn’t gotten

around to hauling away, but that couldn’t be farthest from the truth.

This unassuming little trailer is currently housing NC Maritime

Museum Curator of Natural Sciences and marine mammal

researcher/conservationist Keith Rittmaster’s workspace along with

thousands of bones, artifacts, photos and memorabilia. Rittmaster

has been heavily and passionately involved in the study and

conservation of dolphins and whales (properly termed “cetaceans”)

along the North Carolina coast for over three

decades.

Stepping inside the small space it seems

as if there could be no way several whale and

dolphin skeletons could possibly fit inside,

but they are indeed. Granted, not many

are currently put together. Instead, they are

safely stored along with dozens of binders

full of photos of dorsal fins, jars of whale oil,

drawers full of teeth and just about any other

cetacean-related thing one could imagine.

With the need for space being quite

evident and Rittmaster’s passionate spirit

for marine mammal research and conservation, the dream of

a designated space – a Bonehenge – has slowly become a reality.

Located off a side road at the base of the Gallant’s Channel Bridge,

the Bonehenge Whale Center is currently under construction on

a piece of land adjacent to property owned by the NC Maritime

Museum. The space was purchased by the charitable nonprofit

Carolina Cay Maritime Foundation for $33,000. Why not purchase

the property through the museum? According to Rittmaster, that

answer is simple – time. As many have experienced firsthand, going

through government channels can unfortunately involve a fair

share of red tape.


As it would seem, Rittmaster isn’t the only person in Beaufort

and the surrounding area who sees the need for a greater focus

on marine mammal research and conservation. Of the $300,000

fundraising goal Bonehenge has set to complete the building as

designed, the halfway mark was surpassed by the first week of

July 2018 after only nine months of fundraising. Though it is

impossible to set a completion date, if donations continue to come

in at the current rate, Bonehenge could be open for its first guests

by spring or summer of 2019.

The plan is for a large two-story open area in the middle of the

building with offices, labs and galleries surrounding the perimeter

downstairs and along certain parts of the upstairs galley area.

Downstairs, there will be a lab for student and volunteer work that

will be accessible from outside, as well as a volunteer desk and a

room to keep the scissor lift which will be used to suspend, adjust

and maintain skeletons from the roof trusses. Rittmaster’s office

will be upstairs, along with a photo gallery and a small deck to allow

for the drying of specimens.


The first featured exhibit of Bonehenge

is intended to be the skeletal rearticulation

of a 37-foot female humpback whale named

Pitfall. In 2001, at the age of 3, she was hit by

a large ship and washed ashore in Duxbury

Beach, Mass. When Rittmaster was offered

her remains, he eagerly said “yes” despite

not having anywhere to display them at the

time. Once assembled, Pitfall will hang in

the middle of Bonehenge’s ceiling providing

some excellent selfie opportunities.

Everything else will be determined along

the way, including hours of operation for the site.

Ultimately, the scientist envisions an engaging place for

research, teaching and learning.

He would also like to see an interface between the Maritime

Museum and Bonehenge property, so much so that visitors don’t

know that they are separate entities. Though unsure how this will

ultimately be accomplished, Rittmaster thinks some landscaping, a

gazebo and outdoor activities and displays would do the trick and

encourage visitors to explore exhibits at both properties.

“It’s going to invent itself,” he said. “What I love is hearing

people say ‘Oh Wow!’ It just energizes me. That’s what I want

people to do in there.”

The desire to see a seamless connection between Bonehenge

and the museum property is a feeling that is shared by the director

of the NC Maritime Museums, Joe Schwarzer.

“The Bonehenge Whale Center currently being built by the

Carolina Cay Maritime Foundation on property adjacent to the

NC Maritime Museum’s Gallants Channel site is an outstanding

project,” Schwarzer said. “Nelson Owens and foundation

volunteers have done a remarkable job in developing and advancing

this enterprise and everyone involved is to be commended.

“Currently, the museum is working with the foundation in

hopes of developing an agreement that will allow Keith Rittmaster

and his team to relocate to the center and continue and expand their

nationally recognized research on marine mammals. This would be

of enormous benefit to the program and of significant benefit to

the museum and the community. The prospect of completing the

center and having it available for ongoing research and educational

programs for the public is most exciting.”

The overwhelming response Bonehenge fundraising has

received from the community indicates both a great need and a

growing interest in the creatures who allow us to enjoy and live off

their maritime habitat day after day.

According to Rittmaster, 34 different types of cetaceans have

been observed along the North Carolina coast, more than any

other state.


Dolphin watching – and yes, they are dolphins (typically

bottlenose) not porpoises – may evoke pleasant images of walking

along the beach at sunset and capturing a brief moment of nature’s

beauty. But unfortunately for those dedicated to research and

conservation, that is often not the image seen. Rittmaster and

wife Vicky Thayer have dedicated decades of their

lives to the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. They respond to reports of

dead, dying and entangled whales and dolphins to learn about the

lives and deaths of the animals. Sadly, the cause, when able to be

determined (which is only about one third of the time), is usually

human-related and, more often than not, entanglement.

One of the skulls in that small white trailer belongs to a juvenile

dolphin named Lionel. Once a necropsy (an autopsy on a nonhuman)

was performed, it was apparent that Lionel had become

entangled in monofilament, which is used for standard fishing

line. Unable to free himself, he remained tangled as he grew and

eventually his bones grew around the line. Ultimately, he starved

to death, unable to open his mouth. While often difficult to hear,

these stories give a face and a name to conservation and encourage

everyone to be more aware of what they and others are doing in

coastal waters.

Seeing entanglement become an increasingly common

cause of death for dolphins, Rittmaster and Thayer began the

Monofilament Recovery and Recycling Program which provides

an easy way for fishermen and beach combers to dispose of

broken or unwanted fishing line. There are 42 recycling stations

throughout coastal North Carolina and 12 in Carteret County

along beaches and popular fishing areas. Since the advent of the

program, Rittmaster and his volunteers have gathered thousands of

miles of monofilament.


One of the longest-running studies Rittmaster has been

involved with is the Dolphin Photo ID Project. He and his

volunteers and peers (about 12 along the coast from Florida to

New Jersey) regularly go out on boats in the ocean and estuaries in

an attempt to find dolphins and photograph their dorsal fins.

Loads of information can be gathered from the pattern of notches

along the dorsal fin. Not only can the dolphin be identified year

after year (like tagging would allow), but it also allows researchers

to monitor how the animals behave and evolve over time. They

can document which dolphins appear in summer versus winter,

who they associate with, how often they give birth, where they give

birth. The photo ID project even aids in preservation through the

monitoring of injured, diseased and entangled dolphins.

Rittmaster is quick to note that much of his research in done

in partnership with other agencies, which he considers to be of the

utmost importance in marine mammal research and conservation.

Institutions such as UNC-Wilmington, Outer Banks Center for

Wildlife Education, the National Park Service, Nags Head Dolphin

Watch, the Outer Banks Center for Dolphin Research, Duke

Marine Lab, NOAA and NC State CMAST all work together to

further the common cause. Whether it’s assisting each other with

fundraising, writing papers/articles or borrowing artifacts, members

of these organizations can always count on their colleagues.

“We share information and resources, and we share them well,”

Rittmaster proudly declared.


There are many paths that Rittmaster could have taken

throughout his career, but there is an evident passion for

conservation, a genuine drive to learn more about the animals he

is researching and an obvious interest in passing that knowledge

on to future generations. When completed, the Bonehenge Whale

Center will indeed be a center for science, although arguably its

walls will also be filled with the same humanitarian spirit that has

guided Rittmaster as he brought this impossible dream to life.

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