This photo of Phoebe Dunbar standing on a grey whale alongside her Lifetimer boat, in a little inlet near Beechey Head, was taken in June 1989 by Adele Lewis. (Contributed - Sooke Region Museum)

This photo of Phoebe Dunbar standing on a grey whale alongside her Lifetimer boat, in a little inlet near Beechey Head, was taken in June 1989 by Adele Lewis. (Contributed - Sooke Region Museum)

SOOKE HISTORY: Phoebe and the whale

How a whale’s skeleton ended up in the local high school

Many of us know that when Phoebe Dunbar was the coordinator at Edward Milne Community School, she accomplished many things, but does everyone know that in 1989 she stood on a whale?

This particular whale was floating in a little cove near Beechey Head. When Phoebe was alerted by East Sooke’s Louise Paterson, she revved up her Lifetimer boat and invited Adele Lewis and me to come along while searching for the deceased whale.

That little adventure was only the beginning, for Phoebe had visions of the whale skeleton becoming a highlight of the new school. Those who do not already know why Edward Milne Community School, built in 1996, was designed in the shape of a whale’s tail, read on.

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First came the flensing, and if you are ever planning to help flens a whale, make sure you have lots of Vicks VapoRub to plug your nostrils as the stench is overwhelming.

Anyway, Phoebe and Louise recruited everyone who inadvertently crossed their paths and set up a schedule for flensing the whale. People would hike out through East Sooke Regional Park with gloves and tools to where the action was taking place; it took days to scrape most of the whale flesh from the bones.

For the next phase of the job, harbour crabs were enlisted.

Maywell Wickheim took charge of enclosing the skeleton in a net; the pukey-smelling net was transported by Jack Homer, utilizing his Roche Cove and the Secretary Isle boats. The boat crew released the net-enclosed skeleton into about 40 feet of water, not far from Goodridge Island.

The museum organized a harbour tour on Jack Homer’s cabin cruiser Secretary Isle, and we were delighted to cruise over the immersed net and christen it with champagne. Meanwhile, the crabs did their work, assisted by anthropoids, and when the net was lifted again by the boat crew, the bones were glistening clean.

All of this was volunteer work, but the next challenge for Phoebe was finding funding to hire a paleontologist with the skill to reassemble the whale, not only correctly but securely, so that it could become a focal point, high overhead in the commons of the new Edward Milne Community School. The Victoria Foundation came to the rescue.

Next time you’re in the school and scan the skeleton overhead, maybe give a thought to the broader community effort that has provided a distinctive character to this part of our educational history.


Elida Peers is the historian of Sooke Region Museum.

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Cutline: This photo of Phoebe Dunbar standing on a grey whale alongside her Lifetimer, in a little inlet near Beechey Head, was taken in June 1989 by Adele Lewis.

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