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The Thames whale: a celebrity specimen back on display

25 June 2017

It's been just over a decade since a northern bottlenose whale swam into the River Thames and drew thousands to watch the dramatic rescue attempt.

Visitors to the exhibition Whales: beneath the surface will have a rare opportunity to view the skeleton of the whale.

Principal Curator Richard Sabin, who has been looking after the remains of the whale since it died, takes us through the making of a celebrity specimen.

Out of its depth

On 19 January 2006, a six-metre-long female northern bottlenose whale swam into the River Thames in London.  It had ventured a long way from its home in the deep waters of the North Atlantic.

Since 1913, Museum scientists have had priority access to the carcasses of whales, dolphins and porpoises that wash ashore on the coastlines of the British Isles.

Almost as soon as the whale was spotted, Richard received a phone call from the Thames Coastguard.

The Thames whale's skeleton

This exhibition will be the most complete display of the whale's skeleton since it died

 

He confirmed that the whale was a northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus), which had not been documented in the Thames since Museum records began in 1913.

Richard says, 'The Thames is tidal through central London and changes from salt to fresh water away from the Thames Estuary.

'Whales aren't adapted to life in freshwater courses so unless there is a problem, they normally only appear in our rivers for a short period of time before returning to the sea.'

For two days, thousands of people lined the riverbank from Chelsea to Battersea Bridge to see the whale and watch the rescue operation to transport it back to sea. But despite the best efforts of rescuers, the whale died.

'When pulses of unusual activity occur and things from the wider world  appear in your stable domestic environment, it's a reminder that in London we're not that far from the sea and we do tend to take  the Thames somewhat for granted.

'These kinds of chance encounters - with large, wild marine animals coming right into the heart of London - can give city-dwellers a jolt, heightening their awareness of and interest in the marine environment.'

The rescue attempt in 2006

The rescue attempt in 2006

 

An unusual afterlife

When the whale died, its body came under the care of veterinary experts from the Zoological Society of London, who carried out a post-mortem examination.

The whale was found to be a juvenile female, under 11 years old and measuring 5.85 metres in length.

It had died as a result of several factors, including severe dehydration, stranding-related injuries and organ failure.

Unaware that the whale was female, the media had given the Thames whale several nicknames including Wally, Willy, The Prince of Whales, Pete the Pilot and Gonzo. However, when it came into Richard's care it was given a specimen number, SW.2006/40.

This numbering, according to Richard, marks the transition from living animal to research specimen.

Richard says, 'Not all stranded cetaceans are examined after they die, usually just those that are in a fresh enough condition for post-mortem examination to help determine cause of death.

'Virtually all of the carcasses that wash ashore end up going to landfill for disposal, as it is impossible for the Museum to collect everything.

'We have a very strict acquisitions policy and are very targeted in those species which are considered scientifically valuable additions to our research collection'.  

The skull of the Thames whale

Richard believes many people feel an emotional connection to the Thames whale

 

But in this case, media coverage had turned the whale into somewhat of a celebrity, and fundraising took place to help the Museum collect the specimen and prepare the skeleton for scientific study.'

The skeleton was prepared by one of the Museum's mammal curators using specialist facilities at National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh. The bones were cleaned using a detergent suitable for the controlled removal of soft tissues.

Once clean, the bones were taken to the Natural History Museum's off-site store where they were laid out on absorbent materials to collect the natural oil that continued to ooze from them.

Why the bones?

Richard says, 'One of the questions I get asked a lot is why we chose to preserve the skeleton instead of the entire specimen.

'With an animal that is more than five metres long, whole preservation in alcohol would have been a gargantuan task with little scientific benefit.

'The skeleton, internal organs and tissue samples for DNA analysis are the most useful for scientific work.'

Few museums choose to preserve in fluid the whole bodies of large mammals as they are heavy, difficult to maintain and difficult to access and use for detailed anatomical study.

The tail of the Thames whale

The skeleton will be on display until February 2018

 

Key appearances

Since the death of the whale in 2006, the specimen has been on display only three times, the latest being the most complete presentation of its skeleton.

Richard believes the specimen is important not just for research but also culturally, because of the shared social experience it represents:

'We've had a lot of interest in the specimen from documentary film makers because the Thames Whale rescue was a moving experience shared by so many people through the media.

'People's desire to share their memories of the whale's appearance gives us an opportunity to highlight the importance of our research collections as a scientific and educational resource.

'There is little doubt in my mind that people have invested varying degrees of emotion in the Thames whale and what it represents to them.

'That ranges from it being emblematic of the state of the world's oceans, a struggle to survive by a creature trapped in the wrong environment or just a reminder that the wild is not so far from our doorsteps.'

See the whale

The skeleton is on display again as one of more than 100 specimens from the Museum's research collection that will be displayed together for the first time in the exhibition Whales: Beneath the surface.

Visit the whale

Book tickets to Whales: Beneath the surface to see the Thames whale and hundreds more specimens from under the waves.

Discover oceans

Find out more about why we need to protect the oceans, find themed events, and read about the pioneering work of the Museum's marine scientists.

See the blue whale

Visit the Museum to walk beneath the largest animal ever to have lived.