April 7, 2016

A Whale of a Job: Restoring the Hall’s Beloved Fin Whale

If you’ve paid a visit to the Lawrence Hall of Science recently, you (or your kids) might have been disappointed to see that our beloved fin whale, Pheena, is missing from the plaza. After being climbed, crawled, and stood on for 40 years, she was beginning to show signs of age.

Children playing on Pheena

“One kid won’t do anything, but if it’s 20, 50 kids, it can take a toll,” says Kim Desenberg.

Desenberg is the Customer Service Manager at Bay Marine Boatworks. On Tuesday, March 15, Pheena was moved from the Hall’s plaza to Bay Marine, where she is undergoing a full-on structural and cosmetic makeover. After the repairs, Pheena will be stronger and sturdier than she was even when she was originally sculpted in 1975.

You may be wondering why Pheena is being refurbished at a boat yard. As we learned from Desenberg, who’s been repairing and maintaining boats for 40 years, the methods for working on a hollow fiberglass whale sculpture aren’t all that different from those used on boats. The expertise of the people at Bay Marine Boatworks made them the perfect choice for a project like this.

The first step of the restoration was to remove the gel coat and paint finish on areas needing repairs, to reveal the raw fiberglass and resin underneath. The removal of these coats makes cracks and other structural flaws easier to see. It also allows new layers of fiberglass to bond more effectively as these cracks are repaired and the structure is reinforced.

A fiberglass sample

Bay Marine craftsmen have also been working to reinforce Pheena’s internal structure. A steel spine that runs the length of the entire sculpture was targeted as a key part of the work to make the whale stronger. They are replacing and renewing the attachments of the steel spine to the inside of the whale structure.Pheena under repair with a worker's booted feet showing beneath and behind her

Pheena under repair with a worker's booted feet showing beneath and behind her

“I don’t know what they’ve been calling it, but I would call it the keel,” Desenberg says with a laugh, referencing the nautical term for a similar part of a boat’s hull.

Once the new layers of fiberglass were added and much of the other structural work was completed, Pheena was given a coat of primer to prepare her for the final painting. Once the fiberglass and resin have cured, Pheena will be given a thick gel coat and freshly painted to be scientifically accurate to the appearance of real fin whales.

Pheena’s return is still a couple of weeks away. When she is set back on her seat on the plaza, she will be ready for the throngs of families and school groups who make playing on the big whale the first stop on their visits to the Lawrence Hall of Science.

“With regular work like this every three or four decades,” Desenberg says, “she could last indefinitely.” Good news for future generations of Pheena’s adoring fans.

Can’t wait for Pheena’s return? Share your memories of our beloved big whale and stay up-to-date with the latest information with #WhereIsPheena? For more information on the science behind Pheena’s restoration, check out Pheena’s web page.