23 September 2020

The tale of the Wexford
Whale and its new role in
science and conservation

I heard the tale of the ‘Wexford Whale’ on Wexford’s quays earlier this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Earlier this month, walking along the Quays in Wexford during my summer ‘Road Trip,’ I heard the story of the Wexford Whale, and its role in helping to conserve the world’s whale population – a tale I never heard while living in Wexford.

On a chilly morning on 26 March 1891, Edward Wickham and two companions, Blake and Saunders, came across an enormous whale that had been beached the day before on the Swanton’s Bank, a sandbank at the mouth of Wexford Harbour, near the Hantoon Channel, after being harpooned by a local fisherman.

Ned Wickham was the coxswain of the Wexford Lifeboat based at the Fort, Rosslare Point, and had set out to investigate the stranded creature. Without the buoyancy of water to support her massive body, the stranded animal was suffocating under her own great weight as the tide ebbed.

The group of men beat the whale with metal bars in a crude attempt to slay her and Ned Wickham – in an act of mercy or in an act of enterprise – eventually killed the animal when he plunged an improvised harpoon under one of the flippers, and put the dying animal out of her agony.

Newspaper reports from the time describe how he bravely approached the animal, using an improvised harpoon to ‘dispatch the big fish.’

And so, the life of this Leviathan of the deep came to an end – a female Blue Whale measuring 25.2 metres (82 ft). The dead whale became a local celebrity, with boat trips organised to bring sightseers out to the body of this monster from the deep. Newspapers reports described the whale’s arrival as a ‘strange visitant from strange seas.’

The Ballast Office on the Crescent Quay, Wexford, was built in 1835-1840 as the offices of the Wexford Harbour Commissioners (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

As ‘a Fish Royal,’ the remains were claimed for the Crown and were auctioned. The carcase was bought at auction by William Armstrong, chairman of Wexford Harbour Board at the time, for £111 for its oil and meat – today’s equivalent of €11,958.

Armstrong had a business on Wexford’s Main Street and, with whale oil was such a valuable commodity, he saw an opportunity to profit.

Some 20 men were employed cutting up the meat for dog food and extracting 630 gallons of whale oil for fuel, or 14 45-gallon drums that were sold for 1s 6d per gallon, making about €5,380 in today’s terms from whale oil alone. The remaining meat was sold off as pet food.

This episode took place just before a global boom in commercial whaling, and the Wexford Whale represents an important moment in the history of this species.

Initially, the whale was wrongly identified as a Sperm Whale. But the correct identification of the Wexford Whale was made by a newspaper journalist. He saw the black baleen plates in the animal’s mouth, and knowing that Sperm Whales have teeth, he realised that a mistake had been made and that the creature had to be a Blue Whale.

Interestingly, although Armstrong may have increased his profits by selling the baleen for use in women’s corsets, enough of the material survived, and this is now held in the Natural History Museum, Dublin – known to generation of children in Dublin as the ‘Dead Zoo.’

However, the enterprising William Armstrong sold the skeleton to the Natural History Museum of London for £250, or €26,930 in today’s terms.

There, the bones were put in storage, where they remained for 42 years. Eventually, the Mammal Hall was built and opened in 1938 to accommodate Wexford’s Blue Whale. There it was displayed, suspended above a 28.6 metre (93 ft) life-size model.

The skeleton of this magnificent specimen measures over 25 metres in length and weighs 3 tonnes.

In recent years, staff at the museum in London spent months preparing the old bones for their new home, cleaning it, repairing it and strengthening it over many months for display. The process was filmed by the BBC and when the Natural History Museum reopened in July 2017, the Wexford Whale took centre stage at the museum entrance. The display was officially opened by the Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough.

Blue Whales are the largest known animal on Earth. The Blue Whale is a carnivore whose average life span in the wild is about 80 or 90 years. They can weigh up to 200,000 kg and grow to a size of around 32 metres. A blue whale’s tongue alone can weigh as much as an elephant, its heart as much as a car.

Commercial whaling drove the Blue Whale was driven to the brink of extinction in the 19th and early 20th century. It is one of the rarest whale species and estimates say there are only between 10,000 and 25,000 whales left on the planet. Commercial whaling saw the creatures on the verge of extinction before they became protected under international law in 1966.

The specimen in London has been given the name ‘Hope’ as a symbol of humanity’s power to shape a sustainable future. This dramatic change to the entrance hall refreshes the museum’s image, with its new focus on living science.

The museum hopes the Wexford Whale will capture the imagination of visitors and challenge the way we think about the natural world.

Ned Wickham … used an improvised harpoon to ‘dispatch the big fish’

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