The History



While serving as Alaska's trade representative in the 1980's in Japan, former Mayor Bill Overstreet visited Japan's National Museum of Nature and Science. At its entrance was a life-size sculpture of a blue whale. Overstreet thought a similar monumental whale—a humpback—would be a valuable addition to Juneau's waterfront—and then filed the thought away.

Several years later, while working for Governor Walter Hickel, Overstreet approached Alaska artist and sculptor R.T. ("Skip") Wallen about the idea, one that Wallen had been independently mulling over. In March 1993, Wallen committed his concept to paper. The ten-page concept and proposal began:

One clear and sunny day last summer I was with friends aboard a small boat off the west coast of Admiralty Island, fishing, by lucky chance, near a group of humpback whales. At least eight of these peaceable giants worked their way back and forth among the several trolling boats, schooling up herring beneath the foam-backed swells. Usually, whales betray their whereabouts from time to time by the rise of their steamy spouts from the surface. On this day, however, a steady wind snatched away each breath the moment it blew forth. Keeping track of the whales would not have been easy had they not provided a kind of aid-to-nagivation in the form of their consort of gulls, which coursed above them like spy satellites, marking their submarine activity.

It was a herring round-up. We couldn't see it, but the circling gulls could, and they knew they had a share coming, and as the whales corralled their prey into an ever tighter school, the excitement of these gulls rose to a frenzy. It was thus possible to predict the place and moment the whales would break the surface. The gulls funneled low, greedily jostling each other for air space, screaming feverishly. Then the sea would part with an eruption of whales, their maws agape, their throats distended as they crushed through the herring and surged as one toward the sky with the power of a volcano, and with the briny ocean rolling off, boiling, steaming and cascading all around. In the thrill of witnessing this titanic spectacle, (a commonly seen event in our waters, for all its drama), an idea occurred to me that this experience could be celebrated in public art, as a work that would bring pleasure and wonder to people for untold years ahead.

Alas, the proposal appeared to be at a dead-end and it lay fallow for more than a decade. But Overstreet had filed the proposal away and, while sorting papers, rediscovered it in 2006, bringing it to the attention of the sitting mayor, Bruce Botelho. What did he think? Botelho was enthusiastic. He contacted Wallen, who was working on a project out-of-state, to find out whether he was still interested in the project. He was.

Overstreet and Botelho arranged for Wallen to come to Juneau in late 2006. Wallen refined his original 1993 paper, but retained the concept of a sculpture that would show the heads of five whales breaking through the surface of a pool in a bubble net. A January 2007 gathering of potential supporters demonstrated the viability of the project.

The Whale Project committee forms in 2007

By February 2007 it was evident that some structure of governance would be required to oversee the project. Botelho approached Nancy DeCherney, executive director of the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, about the council's willingness to serve as the fiscal agent. DeCherney sought and received permission from her board to proceed, but recommended that an advisory committee be established.

In addition to DeCherney, Overstreet and Botelho identified several prominent Juneauites who promptly agreed to serve: Kathy Kolkhorst Ruddy, Laraine Derr, Sharon Kelly, and Kay Diebels. Later in the project, Jim Clark, Paul Dick, Miranda McCarty, and Jean Overstreet joined the committee, as did Ermalee Hickel as Honorary Chair of the Board.

Action proceeded on several fronts. The group named itself The Whale Project, and one of its first actions was to approve Wallen's proposal for a major change in the design concept of the sculpture from a group of five bubble-net-feeding whales to a single breaching whale. Cost was a factor in the sculptor's decision but more important, a breaching whale would show more of the animal's body and better demonstrate its power. It would be visible from a greater distance, and a single animal would more easily lend itself as an icon for Alaska and Juneau.

Wallen proposed that the sculpture proceed in two stages: a maquette (inch-to-the-foot scale model), which would be scaled up to a life size sculpture that would rise 25 feet from a pool. A generous gift from Noel and Shari Grant made it possible for Wallen to proceed with the maquette.

The committee envisioned that the whale sculpture be placed at or near Marine Park on Juneau's waterfront. Such a placement would require not only city approval, but also support for the site preparation. That action was forthcoming.

On August 6, 2007 the City and Borough Assembly unanimously expressed its support for the breaching humpback whale as an appropriate way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of statehood and authorized the manager to:

(1) accept and maintain the whale project on behalf of the City and Borough of Juneau;
(2) approve the placement of the sculpture in Marine Park; and,
(3) prepare the site to receive and properly position the sculpture, subject to an engineering evaluation and the normal city budgeting process.

Preliminary site work begins and The Whale Project incorporates

Juneau's City Engineering Department undertook a preliminary site analysis for placement of the whale at Marine Park, exploring five options ranging in cost between $1.3 and $5.2 million. The range reflected primarily costs associated with piling and fill. The effort was complicated by evolving plans for an expansion of the dock facilities adjacent to Marine Park, consistent with the Downtown Water Development Plan adopted in 2003. Months before the Assembly approved the Whale Project's proposal, it had authorized the city's Docks and Harbors Board to begin design for berths to accommodate the so-called Panamax cruise ships expected to call on Southeast Alaska in coming years.

Because of the competing demands on use for Marine Park and the likelihood of multi-year delays in completing the dock facilities, the city engineer, working with the committee, proposed examination of alternative sites. In addition to Marine Park, these included the Juneau Subport, the soon-to-be-vacated city shop near the Juneau-Douglas Bridge, the Transit Plaza, the Alaska State Museum and Centennial Hall.

In the meantime, the committee recognized that it needed to be "free-standing" rather than an adjunct of the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council in order to seek funding from charitable foundations. Accordingly, The Whale Project incorporated as an Alaska non-profit on August 15, 2008. Its board of directors elected its first officers: Kathy Kolkhorst Ruddy, president, Bill Overstreet, vice president, Kay Diebels, secretary and Sharon Kelly, treasurer. Laraine Derr was named finance chair. On December 2, 2008, the Internal Revenue Service issued its letter of determination that the corporation was tax-exempt.

The Maquette is undertaken

In May, 2007 Alaska's life-scale breaching humpback whale sculpture began its existence as an apple-crate-sized block of blue foam in the backyard of Wallen's boyhood home in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. When anticipating doing a large sculpture, one that will require working at height off scaffolding, prudence calls for creating a maquette first. A maquette is the working model for a larger sculpture. It is easier to work out details of composition in small scale on a tabletop rather than make changes in a large piece off a ladder or lift twenty-five feet in the air. Usually maquettes are rough models, but R.T. Wallen sometimes finishes them in detail and casts them as editions of small sculptures in their own right (as is the case with the whale maquette).

The maquette for the whale is 25 inches high, the scale being an inch to a foot on the life size bronze. A 25-inch maquette, or a 25-foot sculpture refers to the height of the sculpture measured along the line of a plumb-bob dropped from the tip of the whale's jaw, the sculpture's highest point). When measured over the curve of the bodies, these works are much larger than the plumb-bob measurement would suggest.

Blue foam called "fabrication billet," a relatively new material, has, to a large extent, circumvented the need for wire and wood armatures—armatures being the skeleton or support structure for a clay sculpture. This foam can be carved with knives and shaped and smoothed with rasps and sandpaper. Once the form of the armature has been completed, the foam is covered with a layer of clay. The clay layer allows for sculpting of details.

Wallen recalled that as he roughed out the form, large numbers of red admiral butterflies were emerging along the nearby shore of Lake Michigan. One of them, ignoring the sculptor's immediate presence and hands-on activity, landed repeatedly—a dozen times or more—on the maquette of the whale as it took shape. The seemingly friendly visits of the colorful insect likely were occasioned by the blue color of the foam, but Wallen chose to regard them as a kind of blessing at the outset of the project.

The maquette was then taken to Parks Bronze foundry in Enterprise, Oregon, where molds and a wax cast were made. This dark French brown wax cast was used by the Whale Project board for display and presentations as an aid in fund-raising tor the project of sculpting and casting the life-scale breaching whale. Being rather fragile, a wax cast is not intended to endure, and, as was bound to happen, its vulnerable nature came to light while on display in a Juneau storefront window one day. The lights illuminating the whale were too bright, or too close, or both, with the result that one of its flippers melted at the base and deformed a flank of the whale.

The wax whale maquette was repaired and extensively re-sculpted in the artist's temporary studio on Sanibel Island, Florida, and then taken to Parks Bronze foundry in Enterprise, Oregon, to be cast in bronze.

In consultation with Wallen, Bart Latta, the patineur at Parks Bronze, worked out a two-stage application of chemicals to the heated bronze, cobalt nitrate followed by silver nitrate, to create a patina on the maquettes that simulated the effect of briny foam cascading off the whale. The maquette was completed in May 2010.

The Intermediate Scale Sculpture is completed

Wallen immediately turned to the next phase of the project. As the 25-inch maquette neared completion, he realized that a ten fold point up to twenty five feet (a factor of 10X) would be inadvisable because small irregularities or errors, insignificant at a small scale, would become evident at a much larger scale. Generally, an enlargement factor of 3X to 5X is ideal. He therefore decided to step up in two increments, first to an 8-foot sculpture (an enlargement factor of 4X) and from there to a twenty-five foot sculpture (an enlargement factor of 3X). Changes and refining of details on an eight foot sculpture could be accomplished more easily than on a 25-foot enlargement. At this size corrections or desirable changes would be easier to see and assess than on a small maquette. This intermediate step also provided an opportunity to experiment with patinas and possibilities with plumbing for waterworks.

The design of the sculpture has the whale curving over backwards in its breach, causing its center of gravity to be outside the diameter of the base. This imbalance lends a desirable sense of movement and dynamism to the sculpture, but creates a tendency to tip. For that reason, Wallen initially added size and weight on the belly side, opposite the breach, when sculpting the maquette. However, it became evident early on that the 25-foot sculpture would require an internal pylon securely anchored in a foundation for support. The pylon rendered the extra size and weight opposite the breach unnecessary. Accordingly, the belly side was cut away and reduced, improving the anatomy, creating a more graceful curve, and more accurately portraying the shape of a humpback whale. Also, the perspective of the 25-foot whale, from a viewer's vantage point would be improved. The whale would appear less massive at its base and more massive at its head.

There were several subtractive operations performed on this whale, after which details were sculpted in the clay in the usual way. Also, barnacles were added. Charles Jurasz, Alaska whale researcher, had preserved several Coronula diadema barnacles, a species that commonly attaches itself to humpback whales. Wallen used these barnacles as a basis for molding and casting barnacles in a clay/wax mixture, which were then added to the sculpture.

A humpback whale named "Spike" is the icon for the University of Alaska Southeast. As the eight-foot whale was being molded in preparation for casting, one of the Whale Committee members spoke to John Pugh, the university's chancellor. Pugh wanted to have a cast of the eight-foot whale for the Juneau campus. Under his leadership, the university's foundation undertook a campaign to raise funds for the intermediate whale. The whale was completed in late 2010 and transported to Juneau in 2011 where it was temporarily displayed a the Juneau Arts and Culture Center, pending site preparation on the university's Auke Bay campus in late Summer 2013.

The final location of the Whale is approved

Marine Park's inadequate space and the delay in its redesign (to 2015 or 2016) compelled the board to seek another location. It early on concluded that the whale sculpture had to be on the waterfront itself. The committee entered into three years of discussions with the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which was itself exploring various development proposals for the Subport area. One of these was particularly promising: a state office building. Ultimately, that proposal failed. Under new management, the Trust's land office reluctantly concluded that the whale and reflecting pool, along with the anticipated traffic generated by the project would occupy too much of the surface area to allow it to co-locate with another development on the site.

The third site, near the Juneau-Douglas Bridge, offered its own benefits and challenges. It offered the best lighting conditions, but was also furthest from the city center. Two other proposed uses of the site were compatible with the sculpture: the Alaska Marine Exchange facility that would include exhibit space on the ground floor and a green-space park. The re-location of the whale sculpture from Marine Park to the proposed Bridge Park received the endorsement of the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee and the Docks and Harbors Board.

On September 17, 2012, the City and Borough Asssembly unanimously reaffirmed its support for the project and approved its placement near the Juneau-Douglas Bridge. Resolution No. 2628 reads in pertinent part:

Section 1. The Assembly expresses its support for the Preferred Site Plan in the vicinity of the former City Shop under the Juneau-Douglas Bridge, and the inclusion of The Whale Project.

Section 2. The Assembly reaffirms its authorization to the Manager to:
(a) accept and maintain The Whale Project on behalf of the City and Borough of Juneau; and
(b) prepare the site to receive and properly position the sculpture, subject to an engineering evaluation and the City and Borough budgeting process.

In late 2012, two new members were added to the board of directors: Jim Clark and Bruce Botelho. Ermalee Hickel agreed to serve as honorary statewide chair. With Bill Overstreet's passing in Spring 2013, his widow Jean agreed to join the board.

The Rasmuson Foundation lends its financial support

Alaska's premier charitable organization is the Rasmuson Foundation, created in May 1955 by Jenny Rasmuson to honor her late husband "E.A." Rasmuson. Its grants and other initiatives have altered life in virtually every corner of Alaska. The Whale Project was honored to be named a recipient of a $250,000 grant in early July 2013. This contribution, which the Whale Project board is treating as a match, will spur the project to completion.

The Life-size breaching humpback whale takes shape

After refinements were done on the 8-foot whale, it was scaled up to create a 25-foot high foam armature at Rob Arps' Additive Workshop in Wilsonville, Oregon. This armature was cut into manageable pieces and trucked in two separate thousand-mile round trips to Parks Bronze Foundry in Enterprise, Oregon. At the foundry the foam pieces were re-assembled into five large sections: two 14-foot long flippers, a head, middle section and base. A coating of hot clay was then painted and troweled onto the sections in preparation for final sculpting. Each of these sections was further divided as sculpting progressed, and as explained below.

If the whale had been assembled in just one massive piece, working on the large body would have required Wallen to have done much of the sculpting almost three stories up in the air while dangling or stretching off scaffolding or a lift. Instead, he and Steve Parks, foundry owner, devised a method to enable sculpting to be carried on closer to the foundry floor. This was accomplished by sculpting the whale in multiple sections and then stacking the sections long enough to blend detail across the joints. After blending across joints, the uppermost section was moved to the molding room while the lower section remained for sculpting. In this way he and his crew worked their way down until the entire body of the whale was sculpted. (see diagram) .

Wallen describes the steps that have followed:

The largest room in the foundry, an area known as "Life Size," normally reserved for assembling components of large sculptures after they are cast in bronze, was, because of the size of our project, reserved for sculpting the whale. The enormous head alone, sectioned just behind the eyes, measured almost nine feet in diameter and 12 feet high to the tip of the upper jaw or rostrum when set upright. The middle section was even larger, and the two together demanded most of the floor space in the room, while the base section, for lack of adequate space, was left outside, covered with a sheet of plastic. Craig Starmer, artisan / welder, to whom this work area belongs, was temporarily banished to another part of the foundry, an inconvenience to which he assented in good humor.

We found that even as the whale was sectioned, we could not proceed entirely without an elevated platform of some type. Luckily a scissor lift was available locally and was rented, pulled off a construction job, and driven onto the foundry floor. Those parts of the sections not reachable from the floor or ladder were sculpted from this lift.

It happened that the Life Size room had an interior walkway or balcony along one wall. From here is was possible to study the sculpture from a vantage point about 30 feet distant and about 18 feet above. This particular viewpoint led to the discovery that an asymmetry had developed in the sculpture. The eyes of a humpback whale are situated in portions of the skull that protrude laterally. From the balcony it was noticed that the left and right protrusions were not suitably aligned relative to each other. While minor asymmetry is not unusual in living creatures, this disparity was great enough that—after re-thinking the wisdom of an action that would require days of work—we cut the protrusions off, repositioned them, and re-sculpted them to bring them to a more satisfactory congruence. The details of the eyes were then re-sculpted to have the downward facing eye able to make contact with a viewer on the ground and the upward facing eye rolled forward in concert with the other.

Many other changes were made to the head. The form of the lip line on both sides was straightened and the cross-section shape of the lip re-formed. The ‘tumble home' of portions of the lower jaw needed modification. The ridgeline of the rostrum needed straightening and the tubercles or "knobs' on the rostrum needed re-alignment. The leading edges of the blowhole were modified and the nostrils themselves were re-shaped and deepened, and the entire surface of the whale, every square foot, carefully troweled and inspected from many angles. The whale benefited in some of this work from the eyes and hands of Alaska artist Dan de Roux, who spent a week at the foundry assisting.

Many other changes were wrought, too numerous to mention, but the biggest and most time-consuming work on the head and middle sections had to do with the grooves or pleats or folds under the whale's lower jaw and throat. These pleats allow the underside of the mouth and throat to expand like the bellows of an accordion when the whale opens its mouth to feed, accommodating the intake, along with herring or krill, of tons of seawater. Whales that have these pleats are known as rorquals. This area of a rorqual requires great elasticity and flexibility and because of this flexibility, is not entirely self-supporting. Its shape depends upon what the whale is doing. Normally the area is supported by the sea around it, but when a rorqual engulfs feed and water at the surface, the throat inflates to a startling degree, like a giant balloon, and ripples and rolls as the contained water surges about inside the whale.

On the other hand, when the whale breaches and rolls over on its back in the air, the pull of gravity collapses the area onto the underlying structures, revealing the form of the tongue and mandibles, greatly altering the whale's profile.

When enlarged from the 8-foot whale to life size, the pleats did not achieve the smooth, long, roughly parallel and harmonious form-following uniformity along their lengths, nor their diverging and converging relationships when running over anatomical features. Instead they were fraught with small kinks and jogs and changes of depth which undid their "rorqually" nature, for lack of a better adjective.

To improve this, an area the size of the floor of a small living room had to be re-sculpted. The job promised to be a long and tedious. To facilitate the work we designed two tools. One had a triangular cutting blade to cut the grooves to a uniform depth and a cross bar, to insure that the flat areas between the grooves maintained the desired relationship to each other on either side of the groove, neither side being too high or too low or trending in a maverick plane. The time and effort of quitting work to design and weld this tool repaid itself many times over.

The other tool was simple in the extreme, yet very effective. It consisted of a two-foot length of one-inch conduit with two bends near the middle and two straight ends, each almost a foot long. One end served as a handle while the other served as a sort of foot and was dragged along in the partially cut grooves, plowing its own, less deviating path since its length disallowed minor turns or kinks, much like cross-country skis following an existing track. The use of these and other tools, and the repeated application and cutting and re-application and re-cutting away of clay resulted in the present form of the underside of the large bronze whale.

Work also progressed on the flippers, each over 14 feet long and comprising about 25% of the surface of the sculpture.


Bill and Katie Corbus, two of Juneau’s leading philanthropists, provided a $460,000 grant to ensure the success of the Whale Project. With the completion of the sale of Alaska Electric Light & Power in 2014 after decades of Corbus family ownership, Bill and Katie believed it fitting to donate a major portion of the sale proceeds back to the Juneau community. The Whale Project is but one of many beneficiaries of their generosity.

Tahku the Whale finally arrives

In Spring 2014, two leading citizens approached the City Assembly to advocate that the whale be relocated on fill as part of their project to develop the Subport area closer to the city center and create an adjacent boat harbor. This alternative had some vitality until a change of leadership in the Mental Health Lands Trust Office (which owned the Subport property). New management had no interest in pursuing this alternative.

However, in late Spring 2015, within months of the satisfactory resolution of the Subport proposal, the Downtown Improvement Association, a loosely organized group of business leaders, held two meetings to discuss relocation of the Whale sculpture to the downtown area and recommended that the Assembly direct that it be placed immediately adjacent to Merchant's Wharf. The assembly heard the DIA presentation, but concluded that the project should proceed as planned.

In July 2015, another proposal was made public: to locate an ocean interpretative center on the site that had been formerly intended for a harbor project. The plan incorporated the whale as part of their landscape. Over the coming months the Whale Project board, which was supportive of the interpretative center, reached agreement with the center's proponents to proceed as planned.

But the siting of the sculpture continued to be under attack. At the Juneau Assembly's August 31, 2015 regular meeting, a local building contractor proposed to build a major housing project on the site of the whale project. While acknowledging that the idea was coming late, he declared that the Assembly's high priority on housing compelled him to make this last-minute plea. After some debate, the assembly in a 5-4 decision agreed to postpone any action on the combined whale and seawalk project for a month in order to study the matter. The project was the subject of two additional committee of the whole meetings. Ultimately, the Assembly reaffirmed its placement of the whale and park at the site. During the course of Spring and Summer 2016, the site was made ready for the whale, now named ''Tahku''.

Its odyssey to Juneau was delayed by a combination of challenges, each overcome with grit, creativity and good humor. The whale was hauled from Enterprise, Oregon on a specially-constructed trailer and on-loaded to an Alaska state ferry in Bellingham , arriving three days later in Juneau.

On September 3, 2016, under sunny skies, more than 100 people gathered for a welcoming ceremony for Tahku, days after it had been installed at its permanent home on Juneau's waterfront. The formal dedication of the sculpture took place in 2017. Waterworks and fountains were installed in May 2018.

Photo by Ron Gile

Drone Footage of the Whale

By Chip Kidd