Objects of intrigue- a relative of Moby Dick’s?

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? 

Sperm Whale mandible below and above scaffolding platform

Sperm Whale mandible below and above scaffolding platform

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.

G. Aboe degreasing surfaces with ammonia

G. Aboe degreasing surfaces with ammonia

Surface areas before (dark) and after (light) treatment

Surface areas before (dark) and after (light) 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 book illustration, p510

Moby Dick book illustration, p510

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).

Moby Dick illustrations (R. A. Forshall, L. Pearson, Book Covet, Kiss my Shades)

Moby Dick illustrations (R. A. Forshall, L. Pearson, Book Covet, Kiss my Shades)

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.

The Essex being struck by a whale on November 20, 1820 (sketched by Thomas Nickerson)

The Essex being struck by a whale on November 20, 1820 (sketched by Thomas Nickerson)

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).

Whaling scene carved by Edward Burdett (Nantucket Whaling Museum)

Whaling scene carved by Edward Burdett (Nantucket Whaling Museum)

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.

Sperm oil bottle and can (New Bedford Whaling Museum)

Sperm oil bottle and can (New Bedford Whaling Museum)

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!

 Further readings:

Gemma Aboe, Assistant Conservator

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4 thoughts on “Objects of intrigue- a relative of Moby Dick’s?

  1. So exciting to see such a comprehensive whale skeleton conservation project underway! Wonder if you’ve come across the project carried out for the blue whale skeleton at Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand? Happy to forward my paper! stollmanconservation@xtra.co.nz

    Kind regards
    Sasha Stollman

  2. The Nantucket Whaling Museum claims to have an 18 ft (5.5 m) lower jaw from a sperm whale alleged to be about 80 ft (24.4 m) long. Also, the lower jaw is supposed to be 1/4 to 1/5 the total length of a large bull sperm whale, so a 4.56 m (14.96 ft) jaw bone would correspond to a 60 to 75 ft whale, not an 88 ft specimen. And I don’t understand how before 1840 would be the “pre-whaling period”? Sperm whales were being caught well over a century before that date.

  3. At the Tasmanian Museum, our largest Sperm Whale mandible is 5m 52cm collected in the 1850-60s. We had a tooth cross-sectioned and aged (by counting the growth rings) and the animal was about 48 years old when it died. So not even a particularly old individual.
    This is such a wonderful project, I have only just discovered it and have really enjoyed reading the blog- Well done 🙂

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