The Finback Whale

The Museum’s Finback Whale skeleton was on exhibition in the Old Zoology Museum, demolished in 1965. The most immediately impressive feature of the skeleton is its enormous size: the Finback Whale is the second largest living whale (it is exceeded in size only by the Blue Whale) and the Cambridge specimen is also one of the largest recorded of its species.

The Finback Whale skeleton
© Copyright  Ben Harris and licensed for reuse under this  Creative Commons Licence

Many former members of the University have told us that their most powerful recollection of the Old Museum is the Whale skeleton: it is truly an emblematic animal, and it draws the attention of the whole University to a heritage of collections and the responsibility of caring for them.

The Whale, a male, was washed ashore dead at Pevensey in Sussex in November 1865. Some 40,000 people are estimated to have made the trip to view it on the beach during the first few days of its stranding. The skeleton was prepared, and viewed over Easter, 1866, with some excitement, by the public at Hastings, and it was subsequently bought for the Museum by public subscription.

The Whale at Pevensey

The New Zoology Museum was designed so that the Whale, an important teaching exhibit, should also function as a manifest advertisement of the Museum’s presence. The original iron framework has been used in the reassembly of the skeleton in its new location, above the Museum’s main entrance, where it is spotlit. The skeleton is, indeed, spectacular, with a length of nearly 70 feet. The living animal would have weighed around 80 tonnes (of the same order of magnitude as the heaviest dinosaurs).

Whales, dolphins and porpoises comprise an order of mammals called the Cetacea. Quite recent finds of fossils indicate that, as long suspected, the closest living relatives to the whales, dolphins and porpoises are the even-toed ungulates (such as pigs, hippopotamuses, giraffes, camels, antelope, deer and cattle).

Various colloquial names have been given to Balaenoptera physalus (the correct zoological name for this particular whale): it is most frequently called ‘Fin Whale’ or ‘Finback Whale’, but ‘Common Rorqual’ and ‘Razorback’ have also been used.The latter name reflects the conspicuous ridge on the hind part of the back. The family to which Finbacks belong, the Balaenopteridae, also contains the Blue Whale, Bryde’s Whale, the Sei Whale, the Humpback Whale, and the Minke Whale. All of these, together with whales in three other related, living families are mysticetes, that is, so-called ‘whalebone’ or ‘baleen’ whales, with fringed plates in their mouths to strain out food material from the water. The other major grouping of whales, the odontocetes, or ‘toothed whales’, includes a variety of large-bodied forms, such as Sperm Whales, together with the dolphins and porpoises. There are other differences between the two major groupings of whales; for example, whalebone whales have two blowholes, whereas toothed whales have only one. The two sorts of whales, toothed and whalebone, appear to have been separate since at least 40 million years ago.

In life, Finbacks are usually grey or brownish on their backs and pale on their bellies, with a short fin on the back quite close to the animal’s tail. There is an interesting asymmetry in colouration: the right side of the jaw is pale, whereas the left side is darker. This asymmetry of pigmentation is also shown on the tongue.

Finback Whales occur in small groups or may be solitary. They are typically whales of the open seas and are found in all oceans. They are very fast-swimming whales, and show similar migratory habits to Blue Whales, with a general northwards movement of southern animals into warmer waters for breeding during the southern winter season. However, Finbacks return to the Antarctic somewhat later than Blue Whales.

Finbacks eat small crustaceans and schooling fishes such as herring, together with squid. Like other whalebone whales, Finbacks feed by using their baleen, the fringed plates on both sides of the mouth, as a strainer. There may be over four hundred plates on each side, each some seventy centimetres long. These plates are on the upper jaws only. The lower jaws are bowed outwards, and are joined together by ligaments at their front ends, to give some flexibility of movement. The throats of whalebone whales are grooved, longitudinally, indicating the presence of pleats that allow an enormous expansion of the throat cavity when water is taken in. The mouth, itself, can be opened very wide and, together with the expansion of the throat, tonnes of water are strained through the baleen every time the animal takes a mouthful.

Finbacks become sexually mature at around ten to thirteen years old. Calves are born after an eleven-month period of gestation, and are suckled for about six months. At birth a Finback Whale calf weighs a mere 1.8 tonnes, and is around 6.5 metres long.

It is our hope that the skeleton will make its point to future generations of undergraduates and public visitors alike. Many species of whale, including the Finback, are regarded as endangered. It is important that, regardless of their academic subject, future administrators, policy makers and leaders of educated opinion should become aware of what we stand to lose as a result of unrestricted whaling and of the consequences of failure in international co-operation in this field. The Cambridge Whale deserves to be exhibited in a manner befitting its importance, so that it may make its contribution to the argument for conservation of these extraordinary animals.

Last updated: 22 April 2009