Dances with whales

Blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum
The blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum

Summer holidays

When I started having Alexander lessons my own bodymap was woolly or non-existent, I didn’t know what was where. Slowly it’s shifting closer to reality. I’ve refined it this summer by looking at the skeleton of something very different to me – the whale.  I cleaned whale bones a few weeks ago. Now I’ve visited the whales exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum and paid my respects to their newly installed blue whale skeleton, Hope.

Before I went I knew whales were mammals, like us. I wasn’t aware they started out as four-legged land-based animals. Over time, as they moved from land to water, their back legs disappeared, along with most of their pelvic bones. Their front legs became flippers.  They’ve adapted to life in water, but their skeleton is mammal not fish. When they swim, fluke-powered using their strong boneless tails, the movement is up and down along the backbone, not side to side like a fish.

The blue whale skeleton has 356 bones, compared with the 206 in the human skeleton
Gracefully diving to feed

I stood under the vast diving skeleton of the blue whale. I imagined its undulating spine powering it gracefully through the sea. I don’t live underwater, but it’s time for me to trust my back and ‘forget about my legs’ when I move.

Blue whale flipper
Blue whale flipper – no bending at the elbow

Whales have short, stiff necks, and fused neck vertebrae. This stabilises the head, so there’s not much mobility. Movement comes partly from their front limbs. These are now like paddles, with shorter bones than our arms, and fixed elbow joints.  Shoulder joints and shoulderblades remain, connecting flippers into the spine.

Shoulders and arms have been a bugbear for me – letting go of tension, becoming aware of joints, using less effort to pick things up. The sheer size and otherness of whalebones is helpful here – like me and not like me at the same time.

Flipper of the northern bottlenose whale that became stranded in the Thames in 2006
Paddle-like flipper of the northern bottlenose whale
Shoulder joint and scapula (shoulderblade) of blue whale
Blue whale shoulderblade and shoulder joint
Ganges river dolphin flipper, looking eerily similar to a human hand
Ganges river dolphin flipper, not unlike a human hand

It’s the skull of the whale that’s most altered since its ancestors walked on land. Whales have no external ears. Instead they have sophisticated internal systems to hear and communicate under water. Their nostrils now sit on top of the skull, with one or more blowholes. The skull shape has altered to make space for elongated jaws. Toothed whales have asymmetric skulls, no sense of smell, and teeth. Baleen whales, like the blue whale, are toothless. They use baleen plates to filter fish or krill from large mouthfuls of water.

To my sorrow I’ve never encountered a live whale. But I saw my first dead one in a whaling station in Iceland in 1983. I dug out the photos of enormous whale innards being matter-of-factly cut up and hosed down, and remembered the overpowering smell and noise.

Back to this summer, and my dances with whales are over.  Their eerily beautiful water-soaked bones have given me food for thought about living and moving on land and my own bodymap.

Skull of Cuvier's beaked whale
Skull of Cuvier’s beaked whale – elongated jaws, nostrils and blowhole on top
The Thames whale - a northern bottlenose that became stranded in the Thames in 2006
The Thames whale that became stranded in the river in 2006
Twisted spine and fused vertebrae from a white-beaked dolphin
Twisted spine and fused vertebrae from a white-beaked dolphin
North Atlantic right whale spinal vertebrae, fused from old age, dug up in London's docklands in 2010
North Atlantic right whale spinal vertebrae, the two on the right are fused from old age
Baleen from a young North Atlantic right whale – there are more than 400 baleen plates
Baleen from a young North Atlantic right whale
Pygmy right whale skull showing baleen plates. These grow only from the upper jaw, over 200 on each side
Pygmy right whale skull showing baleen plates
Corset stays made of baleen plates (known as whalebone) from the Museum of London
Breathe in: baleen plates were used to make stays for whalebone corsets

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