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Whales – Beneath the Surface at the Natural History Museum

  • Written by  Chris Fitch and Laura Cole
  • Published in Exhibitions
The ‘Thames Whale’ became lost in central London, and tragically died before it could be rescued The ‘Thames Whale’ became lost in central London, and tragically died before it could be rescued Trustees of NHM
13 Jul
With a blue whale skeleton due to be unveiled in the Natural History Museum’s main Hintze Hall, this accompanying exhibition tells the dramatic story of the world’s whales

Slightly over 500 million years ago, life once swum up to the water’s edge and flopped out onto the land. It was the start of a process which eventually resulted in all known land animals, from dinosaurs to elephants to hamsters to humans. But there was one particular family – the cetaceans – that decided, 50 million years ago in the wake of the demise of the dinosaurs, to somewhat reverse that process.

The new Natural History Museum exhibition Whales tells the story of how a ‘goat-sized, four-legged creature’ known as Pakicetus, which had developed a tendency to venture into the water to catch fish, began the evolutionary path that brought us – via Janjucetus roughly 25 million years ago – present day dolphins, orcas and even the mighty blue whale. Much of the exhibition is devoted to the adaptations which modern cetaceans have adopted in order to survive underwater.

evolutionVisualising the evolution of whales over 50 million years (Image: Trustees of NHM)

One key component, as the museum appears keen to emphasis, is their size. Whales have been able to grow to enormous sizes; a blue whale’s tongue being famously as large as an African elephant. On land, a blue whale – the largest ever living organism – would be crushed by its own body weight. The ocean is the only place such gigantic creatures could possibly survive.

The exhibit displays this immense sense of scale in the most direct way imaginable – letting visitors walk around the actual vertebrae (which looks almost like a propeller from an old fashioned commercial aircraft), jaw bones, flippers, and shoulder blades of fully-grown blue, sperm, bowhead, humpback and other whales.

vertebraBlue whale vertebra and Humpback whale flippers (Image: Trustees of NHM)

Not all parts of the animals got larger. While the Pakicetus’ front legs eventually turned into huge flippers, the back legs became smaller and smaller, until almost entirely disappearing; the tiny pelvis and femur of the bowhead whale is mere decoration for this 18-metre long giant. Another distinctive adaptation from their days as a small land animal, one not so far removed from hoofed mammals, is the four-chambered stomach, similar to modern day cows, goats and giraffes.

Who remembers the so-called ‘Thames Whale’? This northern bottlenose whale spent two days swimming up the River Thames in January 2006, unfortunately dying before the authorities could return it to the ocean. The skeleton of the whale is fully encased in the exhibition, the final resting place for an animal which found itself lost far from the deep waters of the North Atlantic which it would normally call home.

Twisted sperm whale lower jawA twisted sperm whale lower jaw (Image: Trustees of NHM)

In case visualising these immense skeletons in action is a stretch too far, interactive screens showing various whales being filmed in the wild allows visitors to observe the huge animals as they would once have looked. Other screens go behind the scenes, revealing how marine biologists research creatures which are simultaneously so large and yet too difficult to locate. Extracting valuable data by dating the earplugs of skull specimens – as one would count tree rings – is a particularly intriguing concept.

One undeniably modern piece of museum exhibit also helps us understand echolocation: a vast prey-hunting game enables different steps to create different sounds, similar to the high-pitched clicks which many cetaceans use to communicate and find their way around. Nearby, the ‘Humpback Whale Jukebox’ allows us to listen to the biggest ‘hits’ in the humpback’s back catalogue, swiping through their various distinctive songs. It’s both engaging and packed with fascinating information.

gameSounds of the Seas interactive game (Image: Trustees of NHM)

The final portion of the exhibition is devoted to the culture of whales. From helping disabled individuals feed and participate in society, to the invaluable education provided by matriarchs, there is clearly a degree of intelligence, compassion and behavioural richness to whale society which might not otherwise be assumed. It’s an eye-opening insight. Overall, the exhibition strikes a perfect balance between usage of the over one hundred Natural History Museum specimens on display, the various interactive components, and the cutting edge research which continues to unfold into these remarkable animals.


Open mouthed and mid-dive, the NHM’s new centrepiece of a real blue whale skeleton replaces the cast of ‘Dippy’ the Diplodocus, marking a graceful shift of emphasis from the old to the living world.

‘We thought it was really important to use something that was still living,’ Richard Sabin the NHM’s principal curator of mammals tells Geographical, ‘especially to draw attention to how we stopped our hunting practices that were making them extinct.’

The 1966 whaling ban saved blue whales, which had been reduced to only around 500 individuals worldwide at the time. ‘The Atlantic subspecies had already been decimated by the first decade of the 20th century, and by the 1960s we had lost almost all of the largest population – the Antarctic – too,’ he explains. Thanks to the ban, populations have now rebounded to around 20,000 individuals.

This blue whale, a female nicknamed ‘Hope’, was probably born in the 1880s, when there would have been hundreds of thousands of her kind in every ocean. She became stranded on a sandbar off the coast of Wexford in 1891 and was introduced to the museum’s Mammal Hall in 1938. However, technological constraints of the time meant that her posture has been straight and flat. ‘Now we have been able to make the dynamic and scientifically valid representation of a plunge-feeding whale,’ says Sabin.

Lit up in blue, the whale’s tiny back legbones can still be seen suspended halfway along the spine – a throwback to the animal’s beginnings on land. Its gigantic ribcage, meanwhile, with each bone as tall as a person, echoes the arches of the Hintze Hall’s ceiling above it. It is a breathtaking and humbling sight.

Whales: Beneath the Surface is on display at the Natural History Museum from 14 July 2017, and kickstarts an extended season of events regarding the oceans which will run until late 2018. For more information visit nhm.ac.uk/visit/exhibitions/whales.html

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