Cleaning whale bones

The whale skeleton being put back together again
Working on the whale skeleton at the Whale Weekender

Summer holidays Terms 4/5

Where do you go to spring clean dusty whale bones with smoke sponges and groom sticks? At the wonderful Whale Weekender organised by curators at the Grant Museum of Zoology, as it opened its bony archives to volunteers to sort and clean the 157-year old skeleton of a Northern Bottlenose whale. The skull has been on display in the museum, but the bones had lain hidden and unappreciated since it acquired the skeleton in 1948.  Now the time had come to release them from storage, clean and label each piece, and fit them back together in a gigantic jigsaw.

When I arrived, the skull lay in solitary splendour on a long table, jaws held open by two foam blocks, and with a train of tissue paper behind it, ready to receive the bones as they emerged.

Whale skull

Gloved volunteers at two cleaning tables were already in full swing, using dry smoke sponges to coax the dirt from large bone surfaces and the more delicate groom sticks to tackle crevices or crumbly places.

cleaning whalebone

I took my turn at cleaning, enjoying the way the smoke sponges brought out the dirt without damaging the bone, and chatting to my enthusiastic sailor neighbour about his whale sightings at sea.

The whale vertebra that I helped to clean
The whale vertebra I helped to clean, number 21 helpfully written on it

Once the vertebrae were free of grime, they were labelled, numbered and returned to the skeleton table to sit in order behind the skull.  Here volunteers and staff swapped knowledge about whale anatomy as they worked out which bone fitted where.

Skull and fused cervical vertebrae
The whale has seven cervical (neck) vertebrae, all are fused into one piece, just below the skull

The tricky part seemed to be the intervertebral discs, which had mostly  been separated from the spinal vertebrae and drilled with holes at some point in the past, presumably for display.  Some had numbers on them, but not all, and each was of a slightly different diameter and shape.

Intervertebral discs

As the spine became more complete, out came a box of ribs, individually wrapped, and it was then a question of pairing up the ribs and fitting them next to the skeleton.  A rogue whale rib, much larger and clearly from a different species, had been stored in the same box, so was carefully put aside for later analysis.

Whale ribs ready to be paired and laid into position
Whale ribs ready to be paired and laid into position

Unfortunately our whale’s flippers were known to be missing, but its shoulderblades (scapulae) and breastbone (sternum), held together by wire, were waiting on a trolley nearby to be slotted in.

Whale scapula and sternum

The history of the whale we were cleaning is well known.  It was caught and killed in the Bristol Channel in 1860 by two fishermen, and measured over eight metres. Initially it was exhibited to the public, but after it began to decompose, it was sold to William Mable. He was the founder of the North Somerset Museum in Weston-super-Mare, and thoughtfully buried it in his garden for a couple of years to hasten decomposition.  His understanding wife then boiled the bones, one by one, enabling the articulated skeleton to be displayed in the museum in Weston-super-Mare until 1948, when it made its way to the Grant Museum’s storage facilities.

Label for the Northern Bottlenose whale

It was a fantastic piece of public participation by the museum, and harnessed the power and knowledge of 800 volunteers young and old to assist curators in a project that has been years in the planning.  The staff were enthusiastic, helpful and engaging, wanting to share their love of whale biology with the public, while also moving the museum’s conservation and cataloguing forward.

For me it was fascinating to be part of a piece of museum and anatomical history, to handle and clean the bones, and to compare a whale skeleton with my growing understanding of the human one and notice the similarities and differences.

Ink drawing by Benjamin Mable, of the beached whale being cut up in 1860. Photo: North Somerset Council and South West Heritage Trust 2017
Ink drawing by Benjamin Mable of the beached Northern Bottlenose whale being cut up in 1860. Photo: North Somerset Council and South West Heritage Trust 2017
Whale skull
Twists and turns in the whale skull
Whale skulls from the front
Whale skull from the front
Skull bones up close
Skull bones up close
skeleton taking shape
Skeleton taking shape with discs being slotted in
intervertebral discs, the one on the right has not had a hole drilled through
The disc on the right is in its original state, no hole drilled through
Ribs going into position
Ribs going into position
Tail going into place
Tail going into place, some of the smallest vertebrae were later repairs, made of wood not bone

You may also like to read about

Neck and Neck at London Zoo

Anatomy Now and Then

Skeletons in the Bookshop



2 thoughts on “Cleaning whale bones”

  1. Wonderful! Thanks for this post, Sheila. How I wish I could have been there – but your words and photos have gone as far as they possibly could to take me there.

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