Whale sculpture arrives in Juneau, fins to come Tuesday

Juneau’s 6-ton, 25-foot-tall whale statue has arrived.

At least, the body has.

The life-size, bronze humpback whale sculpture came in by ferry early Monday morning. Sculptor R.T. “Skip” Wallen and about 20 people weathered a light drizzle to welcome the whale at Auke Bay.

“The whale, the humpback whale in particular, and especially the humpback whale breaching, has to be one of the grand spectacles of nature, comparable to the migration of wildebeests in the Serengeti,” Wallen said. “So we can celebrate this because it is such a commonly observed local phenomenon.”

After passengers disembarked, a dual-wheeled truck hauled the flatbed trailer with the whale out of the ferry. As the whale was pulled from the ferry, spectators cooed with oohs and aahs.

The truck stopped for a brief moment as Wallen, members of The Whale Project, and others posed for photos before the truck headed inbound to its future home near Douglas Bridge, where it will become the centerpiece for a planned infinity pool at a waterfront park the city will build.

Kathy Kolkhorst Ruddy, former chair of The Whale Project, credited Wallen with the artistic vision to capture a magnificent animal, but also the pride of the state’s capital city.

“This sculpture of a life-sized breaching humpback whale will focus all this international energy on Juneau,” Ruddy said. “We’re ready for it, too. We have a world class waterfront, we have new docks for the cruise ships and we have a million people come in, so we need to give them something amazing to see.”

The Whale Project raised about $2.8 million for the project.

One of the early ideas was to design five humpback whale heads in bubble net feeding formation. That’s the practice when a group of whales use a shrinking circle bubbles to corral fish together so they’re easier feed on, Wallen said. That project was too expensive to realize.

Wallen and a few others from the welcoming party explored the site of the future park.

The whale sculpture is hauled to its temporary resting place under the Douglas Bridge, Juneau. The 6-ton bronze sculpture will become the centerpiece of a planned infinity pool the City of Juneau plans to build. (Photo by Tripp Crouse/KTOO)
Contractors hauled the whale sculpture to its temporary resting place under the Douglas Bridge on Monday. The 6-ton bronze sculpture will become the centerpiece of a planned infinity pool at a waterfront park the city is building. (Photo by Tripp J Crouse/KTOO)

“You can see the openings here, the holes,” Wallen said, pointing to the several places in the bronze shell. “That’s when the fountain is working the water will come out.”

Inside the whale body, multiple welds can be seen; the main body was a series of bronze castings fitted together like a very large puzzle piece.

A ladder stretches up toward the head to allow access to future waterworks. From the belly looking upward, the top of the sculpture gets very dark on the inside. “Creepy,” someone said.

The whale has large bronze eyes and a multitude of barnacles that stretch along the head.

Former Mayor Bill Overstreet first had the idea for a large whale sculpture while visiting the National Museum of Nature and Science, which had a life-size sculpture of a blue whale installed at its entrance, according to Bruce Botelho, president of The Whale Project. Overstreet died in 2013.

Overstreet visited the museum during his tenure as Alaska’s trade representative with Japan in the 1980s, according to The Whale Project’s website.

His widow Jean Overstreet and son Bill Overstreet Jr. attended the whale arrival. Bill Jr. and his wife Carol traveled from their home in Oregon Hills, California, for the informal event.

The Whale Project’s fundraising efforts began in September 2007 and wrapped about a year ago, according to the Laraine Derr, treasurer for The Whale Project. She said the whale symbolizes the people of Alaska, both the people who are born here and the people who come to live in the state.

“For me it is a gift to the state of Alaska from the people of Alaska in honor of what Alaska has done for us,” she said. “There are few of us that were born here. … Most of us came from somewhere else and we are who we are and what we are today because of the state of Alaska. I think the whale signifies that spirit of Alaska.”

The whale statue is part of the Overstreet legacy, but it’s also been a sore subject for fiscal conservatives and the cruise ship industry.

Cruise ship passenger fees are covering the cost of a $10 million waterfront park and reflecting pool where the whale sculpture will be installed. The industry sued the city in April and cited the whale statue park as an example of misuse of the passenger fees.

Under federal law, cruise ship head tax money must be spent to benefit ships and their passengers.

The whale isn’t quite whole yet.

“In order for it to come to its full realization the fins have to be on,” Wallen said. “It looks very truncated this way.”

The fins are expected to arrive Tuesday. A welder from the foundry is expected to travel Aug. 17 to Juneau to weld the flippers into place.

An informal unveiling is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 3, with a formal dedication sometime next year.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated and expanded. 

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