AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
For most people, a hobby is something like gulf or knitting. For one San Francisco man, it's skulls, as in finding and cleaning them. Ray Bandar has spent 60 years building a scientific collection of animal bones. As Lauren Sommer of member station KQED reports, the skulls will eventually go to the California Academy of Sciences, which has just opened an exhibit featuring his work.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: You've heard of skeletons in the closet. For Ray Bandar, it's skulls in his basement. Oh, wow. There are 7,000 skulls down here, stacked floor to ceiling.
RAY BANDAR: Seals and sea lions. Leopards and cheetahs and jaguars and horses and zebras.
SOMMER: Bandar is a sprightly 86 years old and has an encyclopedic knowledge of these bones. He's spent most of his life searching California beaches for dead seals and sea lions. First, he'd decapitate them, something he can do with a permit from the state. The more exotic animals came from local zoos after the animals died. Then, he'd clean their skulls.
BANDAR: I remove as much flesh as possible, put them in a bucket of water, put it in a warm spot, leave it sit there for weeks. The bacterial action removes all the organic material.
SOMMER: Bandar collected his first skull in his 20s, dragging the head of a harbor seal back to his parents house on public transportation.
BANDAR: How do you get the meat off? So I put it in a big pot. Well, I guess I'll boil it. And, boy, did it stink up the house. When my parents came home, they weren't too happy about that.
SOMMER: Beachgoers would often crowd around Bandar as he collected. Other times, not so much, like when he was working on a 14-foot elephant seal carcass on the beach in front of the Ritz Carlton.
BANDAR: And then, I'm sitting on his neck, cutting away, trying to sever the skull from the torso. And I turn around, and standing on the beach, there's three cops.
SOMMER: They'd gotten a number of phone calls.
BANDAR: More than one call is - there's this homeless guy. He's trying to eat this dead elephant seal.
SOMMER: Bandar sees these bones as pieces of art. When his skulls go to the California Academy of Sciences, they'll make up one-fifth of the museum's collection.
SUE PEMBERTON: So you'll see over on the left here, I have a young elephant seal skull.
REPORTER: Sue Pemberton is a curatorial assistant at the California Academy of Sciences. We're in the specimen preparation room, where she pulls a harbor seal skull out of a large bucket of water.
PEMBERTON: So you can see...
PEMBERTON: That's nasty. Smells like the worst outhouse you can ever be in, but that's how it works. Everything kind of breaks down.
SOMMER: Pemberton says these skulls show the health of marine marine mammals, whether they were sick and what they ate. She pulls out a sea otter skull, this one a little less fleshy.
PEMBERTON: And here, you can see what color the teeth are - bright purple, like the color of grape juice purple.
SOMMER: This otter ate purple sea urchins, which actually stained its teeth. Pemberton hands out to the beach anytime a dead animal is reported. And her work has actually helped change policy. After she found dead whales that have been killed by ship strikes, federal officials put in new speed limits for cargo ships off the coast.
PEMBERTON: It's not pleasant by any stretch. But to know that it's actually helping with the conservation and protection of all the whales that come after that it - it makes it all really worthwhile.
SOMMER: Pemberton's collection, along with Ray Bandar's, will be studied by scientists for decades to come. The public can catch a glimpse at the new exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in San Francisco.