Changing Planet

Pictures: Whale Bone Memorials, by Nature and Humans

(Photo by Andrew Howley)
The upper part of a sperm whale skull lies on a beach among dozens of other bones from a group that stranded long ago. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

In front of Christ Church Cathedral in the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) town of Stanley rises a four-branched arch made of the lower jaws of two blue whales. It stands as an adornment for the church, a local curiosity and landmark, a memorial to the whaling communities of the past, and a commemoration of the 1933 centennial of British administration of the islands. To the eyes of the researchers attending the Falkland Islands Science Symposium this week, it’s also a reminder of the lingering mystery and shocking vulnerability of even the largest animals in the world.

(Photo by Andrew Howley)
Echoing the arches of the cathedral behind, the nearly hundred-year-old whale bone arch stands as a local landmark and reminder of the whaling activity of the past. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

A few blocks up the hill from the arch, reassembled bones and skeletons of sperm whales and other whales are displayed by a local metal worker who campaigned to end whaling in the islands, in part through the creation and display of humpback-shaped signs throughout town, one of which is still on display.

(Photo by Andrew Howley)
The square head and seemingly very thin lower jaw of a living sperm whale give few clues to the intricate bone structures inside. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
(Photo by Andrew Howley)
Having grown up in the ’80s, when everyone seemed to be crying out to “Save the Whales,” it’s always sobering to be reminded of how recently the most intensive whaling occurred—and how much of a shift it was to turn away from it. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

Some 35 miles from town, dozens of other bones of other sperm whales rest on a beach where the giants stranded themselves long ago.

(Photo by Andrew Howley)
Moss grows on the dried-out bones of one of several sperm whales that beached in a small cove long ago. (Photo by Andrew Howley)
(Photo by Andrew Howley)
As the bones sink, and the sand blows and shifts to cover them, fossilization is partly already in process. Someday, a future researcher could chip through sandstone and uncover these very bones. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

While some of the bones are slowly sinking into the earth like the one above, giving a glimpse of future paleontology in the making, others like the lower left jaw below still arc well up off the ground.

Its pointy end evidently proved an irresistible scratching post for a local sheep, a bit of whose wool remains there—a temporary adornment to a timeless natural memorial.

(Photo by Andrew Howley)
The teeth have been removed from the sockets of this lower left jaw bone. This is usually done either by the government to prevent the illegal sale of whale ivory, or possibly by people long ago. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

All these sites have been visited by delegates from across the Americas attending the science symposium being held in Stanley. They are meeting to discuss the rich potential for research in these remote and beautiful islands.

At dusk that evening, on a boat to observe the countless sooty shearwaters returning to roost, water spouts in the distance drew everyone’s attention to the presence of living whales ahead of us. To Scott Baker of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, and a National Geographic grantee, the whales’ large size and low but prominent dorsal fins identified them as most likely Sei whales. Little is known or understood about these large filter feeders, so learning of their activity in these waters, Baker is eager to begin a project to track and observe them here.

Where whalers once planned these animals’ slaughter, scientists now plan their study and protection.

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Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. He is currently beginning a new role as communications director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history.

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