Category Archives: Curatorial
What is 14 m long, rather smelly and comes out of the ground of a local wood: our whale skeleton!
And thanks to all you Name the Whale voters, we can now refer to it as Drigg or Driggsby!
To quickly recap: not so long ago, and not so far away, our Sei whale, Driggsby, died on Drigg beach, West Cumbria around February 2014 and we recovered the skeleton that August. An ambitious campaign to mount the skeleton in the Museum began. Burying the specimen with sand and compost encouraged decomposition of remaining flesh. Whilst a few of those bones were ready to store in the Museum (and exhibit) last October, most of the specimen had been sitting underground in a local wood, waiting patiently for our return…… (I hope this doesn’t read like a Star Wars intro too much).
I had been eagerly awaiting this April for some time. It was an exciting prospect to bring Driggsby to its new home at Tullie. So when I received an e-mail early in April from my predecessor Stephen Hewitt, who was involved with the recovery of the skeleton in 2014, that the specimen had been dug up from the ground and was now suitably “skeleton-ised” enough so that it could be brought to the Museum, my heart jumped with joy.
However, there was much planning to do. For instance, we needed to arrange a large vehicle (kindly driven by Carlisle Scaffolding) to pick up the specimen. But now the adventure could begin.
As our large 10 m long truck pulled away from Tullie House, we eagerly anticipated inspecting our specimen. With our full protective suits and large, blue nitrile gloves, our team of six looked like we had just escaped from a laboratory (Personal Protective Equipment is not fashion-conscious!). However, as we discovered, we would need all this gear with all the challenges that Driggsby was about to throw at us.
After we entered the local wood, we pulled up next to a large, blue tarpaulin cover, at the side of the road; this was the “X” on my (mental) treasure map. This is where I had been told Driggsby had been stored, after she (or he) was dug up. Eagerly I pulled back the cover to reveal dozens of bones of various different sizes. In the middle, the neck vertebrae (cervicals) were stacked up alongside lumbar and thoracic vertebrae. At the side, a huge bar curved around these bones: one of the lower bones in the jaw or mandible. It seems Christmas had come early…
Each bone was coated in sand and compost giving it a, technically speaking, ‘messy’ feel. Now, our “bone-athun” began, loading heavy specimens carefully onto the bubblewrap lined vehicle. It was amazing how quickly we got through such a huge roll of bubblewrap, as we carefully packed around each element to prevent movement and subsequent damage. My advice to anyone planning this kind of project: you can never have too much bubblewrap!
Just after we got into our stride, we came across three large vertebrae seemingly joined together. Why was this? The first clue was a pungent, lung-gripping smell. As we bravely peered closer, we could see a white gel-like substance between the vertebrae. This was soft tissue still remaining. It is quite common for soft tissue to stubbornly remain on the tail vertebrae at a late stage of decomposition. So I was actually expecting this (though you can never really prepare for the bad smell). Using a curatorial field tool, a saw, we separated the vertebrae to make them easier to carry.
However, the greatest challenge was easily the 2 1/2 m long skull. First we needed to dig it out of the sand: it seems the weight of the skull had allowed it to sink into the soft sediment. Like a scene from Jurassic Park (and the size of these bones certainly justifies this comparison), we busily gathered around the skull and began excavating it from the surrounding sediment so that we could safely lift it out. Although this skull is huge, it is incredibly fragile. Many parts are just made of thin sheets of bone and if lifted incorrectly,… well you can probably guess the rest.
As we were kneeling down prising sediment from around the bones, a heavy storm of hail showered down, mercilessly bombarding us; our dedication to this task couldn’t have been highlighted more. But we had come this far and this was certainly not going to deter us: #stubborncurators.
Four of us were needed to lift this huge object onto the truck. We used a series of pallets stacked on top of each other in order to get the skull safely to a height where we could lift it onto the truck. Finally we were ready for the next part of the adventure. Driggsby the whale was coming to Tullie.
As we arrived, we were greeted by a crowd of smiling children from Calthwaite School who had heard about the whale arriving. One of the teachers lifted each of them up, in turn, so that they could peer inside. Their reaction can only be described as awe; it was the combination of the fact that these strange objects were bones and that they were of dinosaurian proportions.
After taking a short break (which was a bit like taking us away from our Christmas presents) we eagerly returned to start unpacking the specimens. We have a dedicated storage area for the smelly bones where we will clean them to remove the sand and compost, and remaining flesh!
A special scaffolding frame was built (thanks to Carlisle Scaffolding) to support the skull so that it could be carried in by four people. You can see below the skull being lifted onto the scaffolding structure: what you are looking at is the top of the skull, the long spike is one of the bones in the roof of the mouth. We have one of the 2 cheekbones that go with this object.
Now shelf after shelf, with bone after bone, await cleaning and identification. I have started working with a keen team of young people from the University of Cumbria (which attracted attention last week from the Cumberland News). We have made a good start but there is still a long way to go!
So after an untimely death on Drigg beach in 2014, Driggsby was recovered by the Museum, spent one and a half years underground “skeleton-ising”, but has now officially joined the Tullie House family. So the adventure is still young, there is much to do before the dream of mounting Driggsby the whale in the Atrium is realised, and, as Holmes would say, the game is still very much afoot. Stay tuned for the next exciting whale post…
Follow the story of our whale skeleton here: discover how he or she was found, her journey to the Museum, and follow the, as yet to be written, story of how she will settle in.
One of the things that I love about my job is that I’m lucky enough to go home and say things like “I cleaned a whale today!” Recently, Stephen Hewitt (previous Natural Sciences Curator) and myself created a buzz in the Museum, as we unloaded our newest addition to the ‘family’: a whale skeleton.
The whale was found washed up on Drigg Beach, Ravenglass (Cumbria) in February 2014, grabbing local headlines (e.g. News and Star). The discovery was made by Edna Kennedy, from Eskdale who is reported to have saying, “at first we weren’t sure what it was but, as we got closer, we could see it was huge“.
Although initially identified as a fin whale by the Marine Conservation Society, Dr Emily Baxter of the Cumbria Wildlife Trust re-identified the specimen as a sei (pronounced “say” or “sigh”) whale (Balaenoptera borealis) (which has to be confirmed by the Museum). This strange name (sei) comes from the Norwegian word for Pollock, which it is often found with in Norway 
So how did this whale end up on one of our beaches?
This young individual (we can tell it is a sub-adult from the degree of fusion in the bones) may have become separated from its small pod (sei often travel in groups of up to 5 individuals) as it was migrating from its winter grounds further south (north-west Africa, Spain and Portugal) to its northern summering grounds (typically off Shetland, Faroes, Norway and Svalbard).
What we do know is that this endangered species is a very rare Cumbrian visitor —most records from the British Isles come from deeper waters from their northern summer grounds.
To give you an idea of what this fantastic specimen looked like in its former life: sei can reach up to 15 m in length3 (this juvenile would have been a few metres shorter). It is a baleen whale with long comb-like plates, instead of teeth, hanging from the upper jaws; an ingenious adaptation for capturing krill and other plankton through straining vast quantities of water in a single ‘gulp’. However, unlike other baleen whales, this blue-grey species has an erect, dolphin-like dorsal fin, and a distinctive single ridge along the snout (distinguishing it from the similar Bryde’s whale ).
So back to the story: it took several months of negotiation before a team of four, including Steve Hewitt, could recover the decaying gargantuan carcass (with the permission from Muncaster Estate, Natural England and Copeland District Council). By August, 2014 the carcass had decayed considerably. The once familiar outline of the whale was now gone and although one half of the lower jaw had been removed, the now exposed skeleton remained largely intact and plans were made to rapidly recover the bones. Almost disastrously, a storm struck in the intervening days and the team arrived to find the whale – gone! However searching further around the point eventually led to a trail of detached vertebrae and eventually, to the main part of the skeleton which had been rolled along the beach by the sea. This meant that the front part of the skull had become detached and only half of it was found. However, most of the remaining skeleton apart from a few vertebrae may be that other people picked up some of the missing bones and if so the Museum would be very pleased to hear from them.
So what next? Now we needed to clean the bones and remove all the grease and remaining fragments of tissue, so that the specimen could (hygienically) enter our Museum collection. So how did we do this? Perhaps some kind of immersion in laboratory acid? No, we did this naturally! That is we buried the bones in raised beds of sand, to let natural bacteria, insects and other invertebrates, complete the decomposition process and expose our ‘prize’ (albeit, with the help of some manure to speed things along).
Meanwhile, at the Museum, all kinds of rumours and intrigue were building in the run-up to the long-awaited whale. “Have you heard about the whale?” often popped up into many conversations. Indeed, I often encounter many exciting things in the depths of collection areas, but I was particularly excited to actually see the whale.
And so on Thursday, October 8 2015, Stephen Hewitt drove up with the first instalment of the whale skeleton in the back of his car (the rest, still buried, needs a while longer for the slow cleaning process and will require a considerably bigger vehicle to transport it!). Being a curator desensitises you somewhat from the fact that each bone was coated with a thick layer of muck. As we began to clean the bones with a high-pressure water jet, I realised that my choice of clothes for that day was quite poor. But although the jet-stream had to be powerful enough to displace the envelope of ‘muck’ encasing each specimen, it did not harm the bones- in fact we need to clean them again. It’s a painstaking job but (apart from being actually quite fun!) is necessary before they can properly enter the collection.
So I’m afraid now you will have to eagerly await for next instalment, in several months, when we can recover the rest of the skeleton.
So stay tuned for my next whale tale post… But in the meantime please feel free to leave a comment…
By Simon Jackson
Curator of Natural Sciences
 News and Star, Thursday, 20 February, 2014, updated Friday, 21 February, 2014
 Office of Protected Resources: NOAA Fisheries http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/cetaceans/seiwhale.htm
 Atlas of Cetacean Distribution in North-West European Waters. Compiled and edited by Reid, J B, Evans, P G H, Northridge, S P (Joint Nature Conservation Committee 2003)