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16 December 2021

Maritime Media Volunteer, Julie Corbett delves deeper in to her fascination of whales.

During Hull’s time of Hull’s City of Culture, the Maritime Museum was home to the exhibition Turner and the Whale. It was a stunning mix of J. M. W. Turner’s paintings; Whalers (1845), Hurrah! for the Whaler Erebus! Another Fish! (1846), and Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves (1846), a full size reproduction of Whalers alongside some of the museum’s artefacts and paintings showing Hull’s whaling history and connections.

I think about whales quite often. It is not an obsession, but since I started volunteering for the Hull Maritime project, I think even more about whales. Not in any scientific or knowledgeable way, but about the whales I have met. I do not mean ‘met’ like a favourite dog in the park or someone’s parrot but those whales from books, films, and life. Here is my whale ornament.

My whale ornament

So, when did I start thinking about whales? The answer is imprecise, but I guess before I was five. It certainly related to both the story of Jonah and the cartoons where whales swallowed characters and then disgorged them. In cartoons characters would sail up to whales assuming them to be islands. In these scenarios characters built campfires on the whales’ backs. This always woke the whale up. Perhaps I did not believe whales to be real. Perhaps I thought of whales then only as made-up creatures.

My grandad was a trawlerman and sailed from Hull. My Dad was in the Royal Navy and sailed from other ports. My impression of the sea was not of things living in it only ships and barges sailing on it. It was not exotic in any way. I saw ships and barges on the River Hull, St Andrews Dock and Prince’s Dock most weeks. I occasionally crossed the Humber on the paddle steamer to New Holland as part of a day trip to Cleethorpes. I had seen dead fish down at the dock, fish in fishmongers and eaten hot, battered fish. The only live fish I recall seeing were big goldfish in Queen’s Gardens and small goldfish in plastic bags at Hull Fair.

A happy goldfish

The first whale I fully remember was on the garish cardboard cover of a Dean & Son’s book. The version abridged version for children, part of a series of classics. I had several of these books including Huckleberry Finn, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Robinson Crusoe. At about the same time I received these books, I saw a film of Moby Dick. This had a greater impression on me. I can still see Orson Wells as Father Mabel in the brow shaped pulpit giving his thunderous sermon, Queequeg and his tattoos and Ishmael in the sea at the end when all is lost.

Front cover of Moby Dick

When I read Moby Dick, I do not I do not recall any mention of Hull. But Melville did write about Hull in Moby Dick.

There is a Leviathanic Museum, they tell me, in Hull, England, one of the whaling ports of that country, where they have some fine specimens of fin-backs and other whales…

That museum was real although not exclusively concerned about whaling. It was the museum of Hull’s Literary and Philosophical Society. This museum did have whale skeletons but not the Right Whale now in Hull’s maritime collection. Arthur Credland, a curator of Hull Maritime Museum wrote an excellently informative piece about the history of Hull’s whaling exhibits. You can read it here. That ‘Leviathanic Museum’ was one of the sources of the collections in today’s Hull museums.

If you went to school in Hull during the sixties and seventies, annual school trips certainly included visits to Brimham Rocks, Bolton Abbey, or Flamingo Park Zoo. If the trip was anytime between November 1968 and May 1971 and to Flamingo Park Zoo, then you will, have attended the whale and dolphin show. It is this show that stays with me. It was so unsatisfying and confusing. Flamingo Park Zoo was and still is a theme park. We looked at various animals in cages and tanks. We went on the fairground rides.

Unless you liked fairground rides it seemed a pointless coach journey. The weirdest was sitting at a lido and watching the whale and dolphin show. The star of the show was a killer whale named Cuddles. I would have been happier that day to have stayed at school.

I thought the animals I saw would be better off wherever they came from. I do not have any photographs from that trip. You can watch a Pathe Newsreel here which has a short clip of the show. My feelings were not especially strong, but as a day out it was disappointing.

As well as the trip to Flamingo Land we also visited all the local museums. I met this skeleton of a Right Whale at one of those. Here is a blog post detailing the removal of the skeleton for conservation before the temporary closure of the museum for its major refit.

Right Whale skeleton in Hull's Maritime Museum

When I first saw this whale skeleton, it was in The Museum of Fisheries and Shipping, the immediate predecessor of the Maritime Museum in Victoria Square. When I visited as a child it was a building at the entrance to Pickering Park. A low single-story building. I remember it as a poorly lit place, several wood and glass cabinets with items in them. Dozens of labels and not enough time to read them. The whole class gathered up in the centre of the space and asked to ‘look up.’ Depending on your imagination you were either in or under a whale because suspended from the ceiling was a Right Whale skeleton.

The fourth encounter takes us back to Melville and another local connection. The one that prompted me to read the complete version of Moby Dick. The only real whale written into Moby Dick was one that had stranded a mile or so north of Tunstall in April 1825. That whale sighting, recorded in ships’ logs at the time as floating near the mouth of the Humber.

The whale caused a great sensation. Newspaper reports headlined with ‘Monstrous Fish’ and hundreds of people came to the beach to see this whale. Sir Thomas Aston Clifford Constable claimed the whole whale carcass through his rights as Seignior of Holderness. You can still see this skeleton today. It is still in the same place as mentioned in Moby Dick, at Burton Constable Hall in the East Riding of Yorkshire. As I noted in this previous blog about Crow’s Nests, Melville’s has some satirical and embellishment when working factual elements into Moby Dick. There is no evidence to support the marvellous articulation of the sperm whale or the charging regime.

[The] whale has been articulated throughout; so that, like a great chest of drawers you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities - spread out his ribs like a gigantic fan - and swing all day upon his lower jaw. Locks are to be put upon some of his trapdoors and shutters; and a footman will show round future visitors with a bunch of keys at his side.

Part of sperm whale skeleton displayed in stable block Burton Constable Hall

The other whales I have met are more recent. On a walk at Spurn Point a friend and I came across a dead whale. We learnt that it had stranded five days previously. What struck me was how alien it seemed lying static on the beach.

Beached whale 2015 Spurn Point

Out of place

Back lit by a December sun,

a yellow and red plastic toy car,

a galvanised dustbin quarter-full of cobbles,

a creel with holding rope,

and another creel with a busted frame,

and a single blue glove with cream-ribbed cuff.

And the size of this.

So clearly streamlined,

eighteen paces long,

damaged skin of drying sand,

ragged fins held away from abdomen,

and flukes gone.

The throat’s ventral grooves drooping,

exposing air-dried baleen.

And the one visible eye socket,

cleaned of everything,

down to whalebone.

And out there the North Sea,

and out there, a rising tide,

through Humber’s Mouth,

vessels with pilots and charts

The next whale I saw was at sea. In an Icelandic fiord. We saw it on whale watching boat trip. There was only one whale visible that day. It did swim quite close to the boat. The whale was so powerful in the water. Quite mesmerising. I was on a cruise around Iceland. The cruise ship we were on took the same route (more or less) that my grandfather would have done on some of his trips on trawlers from Hull. It was the last trip of the season, and the weather was rough. I certainly appreciated the stabilisers on the ship. The whole trip gave me a little insight into what it would have been like on a trawler.

The last whales I have seen were two from a group that stranded on Withernsea on Christmas Eve 2020. These remains were still on the beach the following August. I had not gone to see the whales and had not realised two the bodies were still on the beach. Dr Africa Gomez wrote an informative piece about the stranding which you can read here.

The two carcasses I saw were still recognisable as whales if you went close enough to them. I could not bring myself to photograph them as they were. Later in September parts of whale skeleton began washing up onto the beach. I felt more comfortable with these. They seemed more natural than the carcasses had been. If I had not seen films of whales or a real whale, I would not have been able to picture what a whale, in the flesh, looked like just from the bones.

Remains from Sperm Whale near Tunstall 2021

I think the realisation that whale skeletons only show length, show internal scaffolding and not the full form or movement makes it more understandable that whaling continued for so long and to such destructive effect. The disconnect is so vast between a living creature and whale products such as, oil for a lamp or stays for a corset. It also makes the awe people experienced in the captured whales in zoos and aquariums more understandable.

The displays at Hull’s Maritime Museum always included aspects of the brutality.

Writing this blog post and thinking about whales shows that I still have a romanticised view of whales. I know little of them as living mammals.