By Dr Sophia Nicolov as part of the Charismatic Encounters project at the University of Leeds.
In 1835, a blue whale, the largest animal in the world, was found stranded at the mouth of Humber. It measured over 47 feet long and the bones of the animal were salvaged by the Hull Literary and Philosophical Society to go on display in their museum.
This is the ‘Leviathanic Museum’ in Hull referred to in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). Initially, the blue whale skeleton was displayed in the Assembly Rooms on Kingston Square in Hull but was eventually moved to the Municipal Museum on Albion Street.
For a century, the skeletal remains of the stranded whale were displayed in the middle of this historic whaling city. That was until a series of institutional exchanges took the blue whale to the Natural History Museum in London to be part of the research collection, and which brought the North Atlantic right whale skeleton to Hull, where it eventually came to rest in the Maritime Museum upon its opening in the 1970s.
Whale strandings are part of Yorkshire’s coastal rhythms, with reports of strandings on this North Sea shoreline for many hundreds of years. They are a part of the environmental and cultural landscape and heritage of the region. Cetaceans strand in Yorkshire for different reasons. Some end up stranded when they are sick, injured or old, or they wash ashore after they have died at sea. In the case of male sperm whales, they strand and mass strand around Yorkshire and other European North Sea coasts when they mistakenly enter this body of water while migrating south.
The North Sea does not contain their main food source and it is relatively shallow for this deep diving species, and they become trapped, disorientated and dehydrated. The causes of whale strandings globally are sometimes natural, sometimes human, and sometimes unknowable. The reasons and responses to these events vary across time and space.
Whale strandings have come to mean different things to diverse groups of people throughout history. The beached bodies of whales once offered a landfall of oil, meat and bones for human sustenance in Britain.
In the context of commercial whaling, beached whale bodies were similarly viewed through this economic lens. For some, they came to represent zoological and fantastical curiosities. The remains of stranded whales have provided invaluable scientific specimens for museum research collections and for display.
In recent decades, these stranded animals have offered vital knowledge to scientists about threats to whale species and marine ecosystems, offering insights into human interactions (e.g. fishing, shipping, industry) and changes to the habitat (e.g. pollution, climate change). In the context of increasing knowledge about threats to the marine environment, the public and media often perceive (rightly or wrongly) strandings as markers of a threatened ocean. While sperm whale strandings around the North Sea were once understood by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Flemish communities as omens of war, in the twenty-first century they have been perceived as signs of harmful human activity in the ocean.
This cetacean phenomenon has captured human imaginations for millennia, preserved in illustrations, photographs, text and memory. Here are some whale strandings from Hull Maritime Museum’s collection.
This is an engraving of a sperm whale stranded near Beverwijk on the Dutch Coast on 19 December 1601. It is one of the most famous Flemish engravings of sperm whale strandings from this era. Engravings like this were made in response to contemporary Dutch society’s preoccupation with these events as being omens of the fate of foreign wars.
There are title cartouche panels with allegorical decorative scenes on each side above the main image of the whale, with another text panel below the figures. Sanraedem captures the portentous value ascribed to this phenomenon through these panels, including the stranded whale’s arrival precipitating a solar eclipse and an earthquake in the following two weeks. The engraving also depicts the responses by contemporary Flemish communities to the presence of a huge, beached whale, including scientific measurements, Sanraedem himself illustrating the carcass (bottom left) and large crowds of people coming to see the spectacle. A Latin inscription at the top provides the date and location of the event as well as the whale's dimensions.
Whales have been known to strand on the east coast of England for thousands of years. This glass lantern slide captures a particular stranding in the coastal village of Aldbrough in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Rorqual whales (most commonly minke whales, but very occasionally fin or sei whales) sometimes become stranded alive or wash ashore dead from the North Sea.
The whale in this image is stranded on its side and the ventral grooves that run from the mouth along the throat which help rorqual whales to feed can be clearly seen. Strandings represent a rare opportunity to encounter these ocean animals, and the huge whale has attracted a group of people. This includes some children and a man climbing on top of the whale, which provides a scale for the size of the animal.
A copy of a lithograph print of a drawing of a stranded whale titled 'Spermaceti Whale, cast up on the Holderness coast on the 28th April 1825, length 58 feet, 6in, circumference of the body where tail set on was 8 feet, span of tail 14 feet, weight 90 tons'.
The stranded whale at Holderness was claimed by Sir Thomas Aston Clifford Constable and its skeleton was laid out on the grounds of Burton Constable Hall in Yorkshire. The sperm whale skeleton at Burton Constable makes an appearance in Melville’s Moby-Dick and the skeleton was included in the naturalist Thomas Beale’s book The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839). In 2009 the skeleton went on display in the Great Hall where it remains to the present day.
This drawing depicts the lifeless body of the sperm whale, with a man standing on top of it holding a stick-like tool. The title and description are printed below the drawing.
A scrimshaw sperm whale tooth depicting a stranded whale being cut up by a group of people. It is reminiscent of Flemish engravings (like the one above by Jan Saenredam). Scrimshaw was an artwork made by whalers who would typically carve whaling scenes into sperm whale teeth, bones of whales or walrus tusks.
While it appears to be a sperm whale, the inscription beneath reads, ‘The Mysticetus or common whale’, which refers to the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus). The bowhead whale is a species in the Arctic and was the main target of Yorkshire whalers from Hull and Whitby in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was commonly referred to as the ‘Greenland right whale’ by whalers.
A print of an engraving of a stranded sperm whale (probably cut from a book). Typical of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century engravings of sperm whale strandings by Flemish artists and likely copied from an earlier version. There are many engravings that emerged during this period reflecting the cultural significance of these events to particular early modern societies.
A print taken from a photograph of the whale on the strandline Aldbrough on 28 August 1900. The whale’s mouth is in the foreground with three figures standing in the background. Other items in the collection suggest the blubber was stripped from this whale.
A mounted photograph of a large group of men and some children standing by the body of a stranded whale on the East Coast. It may be the same whale at Aldbrough pictured above. Typical of these events are the people attracted to the site of the stranding. From the size of the animal, it may be a minke whale, which is the most common rorqual to beach along Yorkshire. From the collection of Captain William Barron and his daughter Lily.
A minke whale vertebra from an animal that washed ashore at Broomfleet Island, East Yorkshire in May 1985. This specimen is a cervical vertebra (the cervical vertebrae are the seven first vertebrae in the spine of mammals, including humans). In the collection, there are other parts of this particular minke whale’s skeleton, including a lumbar vertebra and theskull. The whale measured 17ft long and was likely the same whale that had washed ashore at Goole Fields several days before. Minke whales are known to wash up dead on the Yorkshire coast and occasionally they strand alive. Stranded whales and other cetaceans have been recorded for science since the early twentieth century by the Natural History Museum, London, and since it was established in 1991, the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme
(CSIP) records and investigates strandings. Strandings offer an opportunity to study anatomy and to learn more about their lives in the ocean, the causes of strandings, and the impact of human activity. Bones from strandings are sometimes kept by museums as specimens for research or to be put on public display.