When the whales came to town
Friday 15th July 2016
PETER FROST fell in love with whales when, as a tiny nipper, his dad took him to London’s Natural History Museum. He is still fascinated by these wonderful, but threatened beasts today
Yet again whales are in the headlines. A 40-foot female sperm whale has been stranded on Perranporth beach in Cornwall and has died on the shore.
Crowds of visitors came to the beach to marvel at the sad sight of the magnificent creature. Just as they did a few months ago when a series of whales were stranded on various English beaches fringing the North Sea.
So what is the fascination with these behemoths of the oceans? They are of course the biggest animals ever to inhabit the Earth. A fully grown blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) can grow up to 100 feet in length and weigh up to 175 tons, making it far larger and heavier than any dinosaur.
When I was a tiny nipper in the 1950s my dad would take me to the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London where I could marvel at the full-size models and giant skeletons hanging high up in the Whale Hall.
Hence they became a lifelong fascination and love affair. I have watched them in Iceland, Norway, New England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Shetland and Orkney. I’ve written about them and campaigned to stop the cruel and unnecessary slaughter still practiced by some nations.
I’ve never watched them in captivity. Whales have no place in a marine zoo or so-called sea-life display. I also try to keep away from whale-watching cruises which in most popular places mean a ring of noisy boats surrounding and disturbing these quiet and gentle creatures.
Watch them from the coast if you possibly can has always been my advice.
I still return occasionally to South Kensington and the NHM where the affair started. The Whale Hall was built in 1938 when Britain was still a major whaling nation and its fleets, mainly in the Antarctic, were a major industry until the 1950s.
About that time whalers decided that the museum’s whales were so popular they wanted to make a few bob from the public’s fascination with these ocean giants for themselves.
In what must have been one of the most macabre travelling shows ever, three dead fin whales, Goliath, Jonah and Hercules, were once on an almost permanent tour of Britain right up until the 1970s. The whales were harpooned in Norway in 1952 and Jonah — the largest at 70 tons — was mounted in a 76-foot purpose-built trailer.
Thousands visited the preserved whales for both education and entertainment. Punters would pay an entrance fee to clamber through the huge whale carcasses strapped on the back of a lorry and parked in car parks and racecourses. The curious show visited The South Bank in London and then York, Coventry, Worcester, Bristol and Plymouth.
Each whale had a doorway cut behind its head. Exit was through a more natural orifice at the other end of the body.
Harpoons and other whaling tools were displayed next to and inside the whales. These almost unbelievable exhibits were initially driven around Europe to promote the whaling industry and the sale of whale meat after WWII.
Later they were purchased by showmen, who gave them their Biblical names.
The whales were crudely preserved, hollowed out and sprayed with formaldehyde and equipped with an internal refrigeration plant. Their insides were illuminated with lanterns.
So where did the three whales end up? Hercules made it as far as Spain before the smell became too overpowering and he had to be disposed of. Goliath finished his days in Italy, and Jonah ended up in long-term cold storage in Belgium.
Even today there are rumours that he is legally owned by a British showman who has plans to resurrect him.
The NHM’s 82 foot female blue whale skeleton is much older as it comes from a animal beached off Wexford, Ireland, in 1891. It was already injured by a whaler before it was washed up. The museum paid £250 for the whale carcass and extracted 630 gallons of oil which helped towards the cost.
The huge decomposing corpse was dumped in the long-established whale pit in the museum grounds at South Kensington and allowed to rot down until the bones could be extracted, cleaned and reassembled as a complete skeleton.
The slow, stinking process of rotting down whales in the pit continued until the 1940s when complaints from locals finally halted the process.
Today the museum has a large whale collection with many remains stored in a London warehouse — a recent addition is the northern bottlenose whale that swam up the Thames in 2006.
The museum still conducts necropsies on the many whale carcasses stranded on Britain’s shores.
Now it has decided to update its whale collection and the massive blue whale skeleton that so impressed me as a kid will be moved to the main entrance hall and from summer 2017 — welcoming visitors as they arrive — and will be rearticulated to a more active pose to look as if it is diving.
It will act as a reminder and a memorial to the 360,000 blue whales that were hunted and killed in the 20th century. Best estimates suggest as few as 15,000 survive, and as these big whales found it hard to recover from whaling because the gene pool was so reduced, the survival of the species is still sadly uncertain.
It will also function as a fitting tribute to the diversity of species with who we share this fragile planet of ours and as a timely reminder of our duty as the supposedly most intelligent species to preserve the rest.