The Tale of a Whale

The British Natural History Museum’s exhibition “Whales: Beneath the Surface” opened 14 July, 2017 (and runs till end of February 2018).  Several of our teachers from the Sea Mammal Research Unit had been involved in consulting on the exhibition and some had even written a book about Whales to go with it.  So some students from the MSc Marine Mammal Science benefitted from the connections. Two of us (Lisa and Lucy) weren’t going home for the holidays and were looking for something to do outside of the St Andrews Bubble. Our classmate Amelia graciously invited us to stay in London with her and her aunt, under the condition that they go to see the Whales with us.

While we hit almost every tourist attraction during our trip to London, one of the most anticipated activities was a visit to the Natural History Museum. Let’s be honest, it was a chance to “nerd out” in public and have it be completely acceptable. To kick off our visit, we, of course, spent roughly 30 minutes marveling at the blue whale skeleton hanging in the Main Hall.

A patron overheard us loudly exclaiming about the anatomy of the whale and approached us to ask about the function of the hyoid bone, which we gladly explained, talking over each other in our excitement.

The entrance to the whale exhibition was covered by bowhead whale mandibles, where we stopped to snap a quick picture.  Man, these guys are huge!

This opened up into the first section of the exhibition, which showed the evolutionary history of cetaceans and contained some extraordinary ancestral skeletons.

After passing through the ages, we stepped out into the main hall of the exhibition, and what a main hall it was! It was a large open space that allowed visitors to wander at their own pace through a variety of displays showing all aspects of the life of a whale. The ambience of the space made you feel as though you were part of the ocean, with blue lighting and recordings of whale vocalizations providing a full sensory experience.

There was a range of things on display including a full skeleton of a bottlenose whale, a collection of humpback whale fetuses, and a poster of all species of cetaceans, highlighting those on display in the exhibition. Of them all, Lisa’s favorite was the “fabled” twisted sperm whale lower jawbone, while Lucy favored the more gruesome, fully inflated, sperm whale stomach.

While there were plenty of things to simply look at, there were also quite a few interactive activities and videos to watch. The videos covered topics such as the physiology of deep diving, the search for an earplug in order to age a whale, and detailing some of the work SMRU has conducted with sound-recording instruments (D-Tags) and harbor porpoises. Of all the interactive activities, the most memorable had to be the echolocation game. There we were, four fully grown-up women, chasing flashing lights, while toddlers patiently waited their turn behind us.

Spoiler alert: we won, obviously.

The exhibition closed with an art installation that aimed to draw an emotional connection between humans and whales, before leading directly into the gift shop.

What a wonderful place to buy Christmas gifts for our fellow whale enthusiasts! And buy we did. All four of us walked out of the museum having purchased at least one memento of this wonderful experience.

While we were familiar with most of the material, thanks to our studies at the University of St. Andrews, the exhibition did a wonderful job of providing a glimpse into what we, as marine biologists, find so fascinating about whales. Looking back on this experience, the best thing was how everything was presented in a way that was accessible to a diverse group of people, from toddlers to fledgling scientists.

We are grateful that we got the chance to explore the Whales exhibition. Thank you for the grad-student budget friendly tickets!