A Dead Whale Tells a Living Tale
Visitors watch as a charming old New England museum restores a legendary leviathan to glory
By Sy Montgomery
From the Deep: The Sperm Whale, Bone by Bone
New Bedford Whaling Museum
18 Johnny Cake Hill
New Bedford, MA
Courtesy of Dr. Michael Moore/WHOI and the Cape Cod Stranding Network
Shortly after you enter the New Bedford Whaling Museum, you may be anointed by the substance that made this Massachusetts city one of America’s wealthiest in the 1800s: whale oil. It still sometimes drips from the skeleton of a 66-foot blue whale that hangs from the ceiling of the Jacobs Family Gallery. A century after the American whaling industry went into a dramatic decline, a whale’s death has once again proved a boon to New Bedford. The museum cleaned and mounted the bones of this youngster—hit by a tanker off Newfoundland Bay in 1998—and built a new gallery around them.
Suspended in a perpetual dive, the blue whale skeleton’s imposing yet unchanging presence stands in contrast to the hubbub of activity set off by the museum’s latest acquisition: a 48-foot sperm whale beached off Great Point, Nantucket, on June 7, 2002. The 126 bones of the latter-day leviathan, some laid out on tables, others in drawers, form the centerpiece of an exhibition entitled From the Deep: The Sperm Whale, Bone by Bone. Designed to show the public the meticulous process of slotting the whale’s bones together, the cetacean work in progress is also a much sought after prize for the museum. “This was our signature species,” says executive director Anne Brengle. “The sperm whale made New Bedford the whaling capital of the world.” Sperm-whale oil was so fine it could be used in delicate machinery, and the waxy spermaceti in the head (thought, wrongly, to be the whale’s semen) made candles that burned bright.
Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum
Such whale products are on display in abundance at the museum, which was founded in 1907 as a monument to the whaling industry. The extensive collection includes an 89-foot half-scale model of a three-mast whaling bark and an eclectic assortment of scrimshaw, figureheads, paintings, books, and whaling implements. These artifacts tell the story of a violent and opulent era when krill-filtering baleen from the mouths of whales was used to make carriage springs and corset stays, when oil from their blubber ran machines, and when nearly half the world’s whaling fleet and catch passed through New Bedford. From the Deep now inaugurates a new era for the museum devoted to the whale’s perspective: its evolution, biology, and conservation.
Putting the sperm whale’s bones together are self-described whale gypsies Andrew Konnerth, a biologist, and his artist-jeweler wife of 57 years, Jean, who travel the world reassembling whale skeletons. Wearing blue plastic aprons and rubber gloves, wielding paintbrushes and putty knives, the lively couple is also part of the museum’s display. Separated by rope from the scientists and their student helpers, the public can watch the skeleton take shape like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The scientific team will also cheerfully answer visitors’ questions. (“What color is whale pee?” asks one little boy. “The same color as ours, probably,” replies Konnerth.)
But the bones, too, speak directly to visitors, echoing the life of the animal to which they once belonged. The skull, which weighs 1,060 pounds and stretches 14 feet—nearly one-third of the length of the body—resembles a delicate chariot. Bone is absent from the upper front portion of the head, which was once occupied by a bathtub-shaped organ filled with waxy spermaceti. Researchers still debate the function, but spermaceti may help protect the whale’s brain during its extremely deep dives. The spermaceti organ is also thought to act as an acoustical lens to focus infrasonic sound waves into a beam that bounces off objects, enabling the whale to “see” them in the dark. This focused energy may even be used to stun prey in the inky depths.
Each bone is surprisingly light and delicate for its size. Floating in the salty ocean, whales do not need a heavy skeletal structure to support their weight. The fragility of their bones, though, poses special problems for the Konnerths. The skull, for instance, can’t be set upside down or it would be crushed by its own weight. But at least the bones are clean and white and, unlike those of the blue whale skeleton, grease free. That’s due to a novel method of cleaning. Instead of submerging the 45-ton carcass in the ocean, where tidal movements and sea creatures could clean the bones—as was done with the blue whale—the museum’s restoration team buried the sperm whale for three months in a 60-ton layer cake of hay mixed with bacteria-rich horse and elephant manure, procured from local farmers and an obliging zoo. The bacteria ate the flesh and oil, and the heat generated in the rotting hay and dung cooked them off. Exhumed in November 2002, the bones spent the winter in a trailer and were then bleached in the summer sun before entering the museum in November 2003.
From the Deep will, of course, cease to be a work in progress once the skeleton is reassembled by the summer of 2005. Gone will be the disarticulated bones, the students and scientists, the tables, drills, and hand tools. Instead the skeleton, mounted by wire from both floor and ceiling, will float at eye level for visitors, attesting in a new, permanent exhibit to the evolving relationship—happily, a more respectful one—between humans and whales.
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