Thronateeska Debuts New Full-Scale Prehistoric Whale Exhibit

Staff Report

Thursday, May 12th, 2022

It has been 34 million years since the prehistoric whale Cynthiacetus swam the sea that once covered modern South Georgia. Now, thanks to a commission of sculptor and exhibit designer Rick Spears, visitors to the Thronateeska Heritage Center can encounter one floating just above their heads in downtown Albany. Her name is Cindy. The exhibit will debut at Thronateeska’s Museum MAYhem event to be held Saturday, May 21, from 10 am to 2 pm.

During the late Eocene, great whales like Cindy were fearsome predators with jagged, dagger-like teeth that were capable of subduing even the largest of prey. A member of the basilosaurid family, Cynthiacetus was about half the size of its much larger cousin, Basilosaurus, which could reach up to 60 feet in length. Like modern whales, they were aquatic mammals, but Cynthiacetus retained rudimentary hind legs, providing proof of its terrestrial origins. Scientists and lucky locals have been uncovering fossil evidence of prehistoric animals like Cynthiacetus and Basilosaurus along the banks of the Flint River for years now, so the new exhibit is especially fitting for the Paleontology section of the Thronateeska Science Museum.

The hand-carved model is one of a kind, likely the only full-scale skeletal Cynthiacetus sculpture in the world. When Thronateeska commissioned Rick Spears to sculpt the 26-foot model, he thought that it would take about nine months to complete. In the end, the project took over 3 years of work. Spears has served as an exhibit designer for the Fernbank Science Center in Decatur, Georgia, for two decades. Before Fernbank, he designed and built the exhibits for the natural history museum at Rock Eagle, which still features many of his sculptures and illustrations. Museums, science centers, and galleries around the country display his artwork. Though he is a veteran sculptor, he had never carved a skeleton as large and complex as the Cynthiacetus. He worked from photographs of fossils to render hundreds of individual bones, and then pieced the model together like an 8-meter-long puzzle.

“When Thronateeska asked me to make a whale skeleton, I thought it would be a straightforward project,” said Spears. “After all, it's just bones defining a space. However, we know what Cynthiacetus bones look like, so it was important to construct the skeleton to exact shapes and sizes. With a fleshed-out interpretation, there is some artistic leeway... not so with this skeleton. It took much longer than I anticipated, but the patient folks at Thronateeska were very understanding and let me take the time needed to do this model justice. I hope that Cindy inspires Thronateeska visitors to go out and explore the fossil history of Georgia!”

Thronateeska is a member of the Artesian Alliance and is open Thursday-Saturday from 10 am-4 pm. There is no charge for admission.