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
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
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
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.