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Whale tales

Whale tales Andrew Sutton
30 Jan
As the Natural History Museum’s diplodocus cast skeleton makes way for a blue whale skeleton in 2017, Geographical looks at the ‘emperor of the seas’

When the Natural History Museum built a  Whale Hall back in 1938, Britain was still a nation where science and the whaling industry worked together. ‘Discovery in the South Atlantic and Antarctica went hand-in-hand with the whaling industry,’ says Philip Hoare, whose book Leviathan, or The Whale won the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction.

Hoare has just returned from a non-stop reading of Moby Dick at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Cape Cod. ‘They have an articulated whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling that still drips oil on the receptionist’s desk below. When you walk into the museum you just smell whale,’ he says. Such interactive museum displays are popular, but it’s doubtful umbrellas will be needed for the Natural History Museum’s whale.

‘What is culturally interesting about the old whale display is that the late 19th century, until the late 1950s, marks a time when Britain was a whaling nation, but at the same time was in the forefront of whale science,’ says Hoare. Whalers sometimes had to be convinced to help science. ‘At one point scientists bargained a bottle of whiskey for a whale foetus,’ he adds.

1901 Sperm whale skeleton  The Trustees of the Natural History Museum London1901, a sperm whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum (Image: The Trustees of the Natural History Museum London)

The Natural History Museum’s blue whale skeleton comes from a female beached off Wexford, Ireland in 1891. ‘The whale was already injured by a whaler before it was washed up at Wexford Harbour,’ says Hoare. Bought for £250 by the museum, the whale carcass generated 630 gallons of oil.

‘We know that whales were rendered down at the Natural History Museum throughout the 20th Century,’ says Hoare. A ‘whale pit’ in the museum’s courtyard, approximately where the Darwin Centre is now, was used to process the whales up until the 1940s. ‘Only when the residents complained about the stink of rotting whale did the process stop in the 1940s,’ he adds.

The Natural History Museum has a large whale collection, with many remains stored in a south London warehouse, including the northern bottlenose whale that swam up the Thames in 2006. The museum still conducts necropsies on whale carcasses stranded on Britain’s shores. ‘We sometimes forget that there is a scientific endeavour in the belly of the Natural History Museum. There are scientists hidden behind pipes. The science is what they consider their real work rather than half-term school trips,’ says Hoare.

Geo Fact: Hull Maritime Museum has one of Europe’s best collections related to whales and whaling, including a seat made from Narwhale tusk.

Britain stopped whaling around 1960, but the science continued. There’s increasing evidence that whales are capable of social learning, and forming a culture. ‘This ‘whale culture’ is a notion we have that culture is informational behaviour in members of community that is passed on by social learning, by learning from each other,’ says Dr Luke Rendell from the University of St Andrews School of Biology.

Sperm whales, for example, are born into social units with distinct dialects. ‘Almost all the evidence we have been able to collect suggests that dialects are socially learned,’ says Rendell. ‘In humpback whales, we observed the first instance of a behaviour called lobtail feeding, and followed how it spread through a population.’ Whales lobtail by using tail lobes to smack the water, possibly to help with foraging.

‘We were able to show that the path of transmission followed the social network. If two animals had a strong social relationship when one learned the feeding behaviour, the other animal would acquire it,’ he adds.

So it seems that an old whale can be taught new tricks, and so can old museums. ‘The displays you see in the current Whale Hall are old fashioned. The blue whale will be rearticulated to look as if it’s diving, which is what the American Museum of Natural History have done with their blue whale,’ says Hoare.

image.cidA blue whale is hard to find in its natural habitat (Image: Andrew Sutton)

Around 360,000 blue whales were killed in the 20th century, and as few as 15,000 remain, according to the International Whaling Commission, although recording whale populations is a difficult task. ‘Big whales found it hard to recover from whaling because the gene pool was so reduced,’ says Hoare. ‘The idea that we ‘saved the whale’ is not really true,’ he adds.

Recording blue whale population numbers are as difficult as studying the animals. ‘One of the few things we know about blue whale is that their song has been getting deeper over time,’ says Rendell. It’s a change characteristic of cultural evolution, but finding out more will be a difficult task. ‘Blue whales are hard to follow for long periods and are not especially social.’

Enough to make the Natural History Museum’s blue whale all the more mysterious, perhaps even more mysterious than a diplodocus.

For more on social learning in marine mammals see Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell’s The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins.

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