Our new Natural Dorset gallery will give visitors the opportunity to discover over 200 million years of Dorset’s natural history and will allow our Natural History collection to go back on display after a period of almost 20 years in storage. This collection has not been researched for some time, and we are busy looking into many of the objects and specimens and uncovering their stories. One such item is the skull and cervical vertebrate of a bottle-nosed whale which was given to the Museum in 1894.
A report read to the Purbeck Society on 9 November 1855 gives a detailed account of what happened to the whale. It was spotted on 29 October 1855 in Swanage Bay and soon after became entangled in mullet nets. It was consequently shot by the local coast guard. The whale became stranded in the shallow water and boats were launched to tow the carcass on to the beach. The body was described as looking like ‘a large dolphin’. Sadly the whale was pregnant at the time of its death. The carcass was sold to a Mr. Gillingham, who used the body to extract oil, a lucrative commodity. It was an accepted practice in Britain at this time to hunt whales for their oil, with whale hunting providing jobs and income to coastal communities. At the same time, the skeletons were also deemed to of be of interest in furthering knowledge of the natural world. The report notes that the head and vertebrate were to be deposited at Corfe Museum; we are not sure if they ever were, or how they eventually ended up at Dorset County Museum.
Until 1997, the whale skeleton was on permanent display in the former Natural History gallery of the museum. In 1997 this gallery became the Writer’s Gallery, and the Natural History items were relocated elsewhere in the museum or put into storage. The whale skeleton was one of those many items that were put into storage, where it has remained ever since.
Today, whales are frequent visitors to the sea around the Dorset coastline. There are dedicated whale watching groups along this stretch of the English coastline and it has been known for whales to wash up on the Dorset shoreline in recent years, an unexplained natural occurrence. At a time of renewed interest in the natural world and increased concern for the environment, it is fitting that we will once again be able to display the Swanage whale.