As part of our cetacean conservation project, we have recently been treating the lower mandible of a Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus Linnaeus, 1758), the largest of the toothed whales. This specimen originally came to the Museum from Christ Church Anatomical Museum in Oxford (Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Collections Manager). Our specimen’s jaw, measuring 4.56m in length, is thought to have originated from an ‘88 foot long’ (26.82m) Sperm Whale from the pre-industrial whaling period (pre 1840), far exceeding contemporary species sizes (Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Collections Manager). It is rumoured to be one of the largest held in a museum collection. Do you know of any larger Sperm Whale mandibles out there?
The lower mandible, consisting of dense bone and cone-shaped teeth, rests upright against an architectural column at the entrance of the museum, yet is currently surrounded by a scaffolding network and a horizontal platform in the upper third of the jaw. The areas readily accessible to human touch, were visibly stained with a dark grease, while teeth showed dusty water drip marks- all of which could be reduced through treatment.
As conservators working beneath this imposing structure, or at a considerable height, we are made to feel very small and the work conjures up images of Moby Dick, a mythical albino Sperm Whale, immortalized in Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick, or the Whale.
Moby Dick upon being harpooned capsized a fictional boat, killing all but one of its men, the story of which has inspired numerous adaptations and illustrations, (four of which the illustrator in me has selected for visual indulgence).
Interestingly, Herman Melville’s novel is based on a true story about a Sperm Whale that attacked and sank the American whaleship ‘Essex’ (from Nantucket, Massachusetts) in the southern Pacific Ocean in 1820.
One of the survivors, a 14 year old cabin boy at the time, Thomas Nickerson, later wrote an account of the sinking titled ‘The Loss of the Ship “Essex” Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats’, eventually published in 1984.
Both fictional and factual accounts of encounters with unsuspecting Sperm Whales, provided us with plenty of thought, while working our way up and down the jaw.
Sperm Whale hunting
During the 18th and 19th century, whalers were drawn to Sperm Whales for their ivory-like teeth (18-24), weighing up to 1kg each, embedded in the lower jaw. The teeth were crafted into practical as well as decorative pieces, such as when decorated with inked engravings, known as scrimshaw. Herman Melville, in Moby-Dick, refers to “lively sketches of whales and whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth, or ladies’ busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other skrimshander articles” (Melville, 1851, ch57).
Spermaceti (from the spermaceti organ) and sperm oil (from blubber) were also much sought after by whalers, since these substances were heavily relied upon for commercial applications (including soap and leather waterproofing), with increased demand caused by the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Sperm Whale oils were used for public lighting (including lighthouses) and for lubricating machinery, (including cotton mills), before the discovery of mineral oil.
Ambergris, another popular product with whalers, is produced in the digestive system of the Sperm Whale, and was highly valued as a perfume ingredient.
While we can only ponder on the previous life story of our Sperm Whale, we endeavour to do our best to document its museum life from hereon.
Do visit our blog again, for an update on how we’re doing with re-articulating our cetacean specimens – an exciting new phase of the “Once in a Whale” project!
- Melville, Herman, 1851. Moby Dick; or the Whale. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers. Available at: http://www.americanliterature.com/author/herman-melville/book/moby-dick-or-the-whale/summary
- Nickerson, Thomas, 1984. The Loss of the Ship “Essex” Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boat. Nantucket: Nantucket Historical Society.
Gemma Aboe, Assistant Conservator