Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Preparing Seal Parts to Dry

Then things got weird
When I wrote last Friday that this past weekend would be a big change of theme for Elfshot, I meant I'd be switching to wholesale jewelry production, not that I'd be hanging up 85 feet of inflated seal intestines in my workshop to dry.

I missed some of the fun on Monday morning, so here's Lori's take to fill in the gaps between the DFO necropsy on the hooded seal and the backyard:

The soft parts of the seal in tubs
It was impossible to find an archaeologist with a pickup to help out with transport so my dad came to the rescue. He arrived the minute we finished packing up the seal and all the totes waiting in the loading bay. Dad likes to keep his truck in pristine condition (as you might remember) so I was thrilled he agreed to take on this potentially messy deed. He arrived with a tarp spread out over the box floor so all he had to do was back ‘er up to the loading bay and Eliza and I loaded the totes on board. Dad was also instrumental in getting the skeletal parts to MUN and into Eliza’s lab freezer, and later the sealskin and I back to my house. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he stuck around and allowed me to sit in his truck for a half hour while we waited for Tim to return from the wholesale show... in all my seal necropsy excitement I had gone off and forgotten my keys... No, this apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. A BIG THANK YOU TO DAD. XO

Cutting off sheets of fat
I did a bit more work on the cleaning the fat off the hide. The fat was still an inch or more thick in many places so it was still too early to start scraping. Officially, the fat layer was measured at 4.5 cm thick, but there were spots that were at least 6 or 7 cm thick. I was cutting off the fat in sheets. The word "gobbet" kept coming to mind as the smaller chunks of fat plopped into the blubber bucket. I'll try to figure out a way to weigh the fat today. I can't lift the container anymore.

Arm through left flipper hole
I'm still a novice when it comes to judging where the hide will be while cutting through the fat, so I found it safest to run my left hand along the outside of the hide while cutting with the knife on the inside. That way I could apply constant pressure to the skin and judge the thickness of the fat. In the photo on the left, my arm is through the hole where the seal's left front flipper was cut out. The hole around the right flipper tore and is the ragged edge on the bottom of the skin. The other small holes and nicks in the hide are accidental cuts from the skinning and blubber removal. Those holes won't matter much in the end, because I plan to cut the hide into a long thong about 3/4 of an inch wide.
The speckled pattern in the hide
I finally got a 1/4 or so of the hide down to the skin and it feels like when the whole hide is down to that level I can start scraping. That will probably be later today. The hide is spotty on the inside, so in the photo you can pretty clearly see that part of the pelt that is clean down to the skin and ready to be scraped.

Cutting the webbing around the intestines
We spent about half the day yesterday cleaning the intestines and bladder. Squeezing out the intestine contents was pretty gross; there were flaky bits coming out of the end attached to the stomach and baby-poo yellow paste coming out the opposite end. The 85 feet of intestine were sampled during the necropsy, so it was cut into three sections. There is a connector webbing that pulls the intestines into a coiled mass and that needed to be cut in dozens of places in order to stretch them out straight.
Tying off the inflated intestine
After I squeezed out each section and ran water through them we inflated them with a mattress pump so that they can dry. We hung the inflated tubes up in my workshop to dry. On the best of days, my job is a little unusual, but stringing those rubbery tubes up in the shed was weird even for me.
I'll be sitting under this all spring
I don't have an immediate plan for the intestines, but once they are dried out they will make a tough, lightweight, waterproof, translucent kind of parchment. They were used in the Arctic for windows in snow houses and waterproof clothing. There are some beautiful, light weight anoraks made from strips of intestine sewn together. Check out this site, Seal Gut Raincoats, for more info.

Hooded Seal Bladder
Finally, we inflated the bladder and hung it up to dry. The bladder was cool - the sphincter muscle is still springy and strong enough that when you pump it up it closes tightly enough that it holds the air in. Its like a balloon that seals itself when you inflate it. These things were used for floats on harpoons and water containers.

Photo Credits:
1-4,6-8: Lori White
5, 9: Tim Rast


  1. Sphincters just got about ten times cooler, in my books.

    Will the bladder stay inflated on its own forever, or will you have to tie it shut at some point?

  2. I think a bit of both. It should stiffen and dry out in its inflated size/shape but I think the sphincter will dry out and open up as well so there won't be any air pressure inside. Ivory plugs were tied into the hole, kind of like the stoppers that you push down into an opened bottle of wine, so that you could re-inflate the dried bladder and seal the hole.

  3. Awesome bladder and intestine work! But I still can't fathom how you're keeping the local neighborhood domesticated carnivores away from this stuff?

  4. I think the carnivores on the street are just as scared as the primates.

  5. Actually, the hole around the right front flipper was not torn. The open and ragged edge result from the initial asymmetrical incision made during the necropsy. Rather than cutting into the sternum, the "coroner" opens the seal up off to one side by cutting through the ribs - it's just easier to access the organs this way.

  6. This is awesome! Do you have plans on what you'll make from the intestines? I've wanted a seal gut parka for some time.

    Here's one from the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks:
    and one from the USFWS Visitor's Center in Homer, AK:
    And another from the Alaska Heritage Museum in Anchorage:

    And here's a bladder container with a stopper:

    I'm envious of your work!

  7. Oh, and a window in an Alutiiq sod house:

    Sorry for all the links. I get excited about this stuff.

  8. "...but stringing those rubbery tubes up in the shed was weird even for me".

    Even stranger than filling them with air?
    You're video of the footpump inflation process is my favourite weird moment in this whole project.

  9. Hey Trav - thanks for all the links - I'll probably make hyperlinks to some of you flickr photos in future posts. You really have some of the best images of these things on the web.

    John - I'll try to negotiate with the talent in the inflation video to let me put that video on the blog. But yeah, for some reason hanging up the intestines was the tipping point for me. Maybe its because I really don't know what I'm going to do with them -- but I'm sure I'll regret it if I throw them out.


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