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Press release

First ever display of the Thames whale skeleton

A free exhibition at the Guardian’s Newsroom, 22 - 27 January 2007

The conserved skeleton of a northern bottlenose whale that swam up the Thames on 20 January 2006 will be displayed - for the first time – at the Newsroom, the Guardian and Observer archive and visitor centre. This week-long exhibition tells the story of the whale’s journey and the attempt to rescue it. The display will include the whale skeleton and a preserved fin - both on loan from the Natural History Museum - as well as photography and a short film by acclaimed documentary maker Paul Burgess.

This temporary exhibition, at the Guardian, coincides with a week of free daily events at the Natural History Museum (22 - 30 January) as part of the Nature Live programme. On Saturday 13 January the Guardian will contain a feature by Ron Jonson looking at the story of the Thames whale, which marks the start of a week of features and reports on whales in the paper.

‘The whale captured the imagination of the British public - and of people all over the world,’ said Richard Sabin, Curator of Mammals at the Natural History Museum. ‘We were delighted when the Guardian offered us the opportunity to display the whale. I hope thousands of people will make the most of this opportunity to see this unique specimen on display.’

The Natural History Museum was offered the opportunity to loan the specimen to the Guardian for a week-long exhibition to commemorate the anniversary of the whale swimming up the Thames. Once the loan was agreed a custom-built case was made by CASCO, a specialist aquarium construction company, which also produced the cases for the Museum’s giant squid specimen and artist Damien Hirst’s pickled shark.

‘That weekend the whale swam up the Thames and the frantic battle to save it will be one of those events that children, and plenty of adults, remember all their lives,’ said Ian Katz, executive editor, the Guardian, ‘One year on we’re thrilled to be able to give readers the chance to relive the excitement of those few days in January through the exhibition and an extraordinarily powerful online film.’

Richard Sabin identified the whale as a female northern bottlenose on 20 January 2006 and confirmed this was the first ever record of this species in the Thames since records began in 1913. The Museum is a partner in the UK Whale and Dolphin Stranding Scheme and was therefore informed of the sighting. This species is infrequently stranded around Britain, but normally in northern Britain and occasionally in southwest England. Northern bottlenose whales are deep feeders, found in the northern hemisphere as far as the Arctic Circle.

The rescue attempt was organised by the British Marine Divers Life Rescue, often called to live strandings of whales, dolphins and seals on the British coast. The whale did not survive the rescue attempt and died on 21 January 2006. The post-mortem, carried out by vets from the Zoological Society of London, established the cause of death as dehydration, cardiovascular failure, muscle damage and kidney failure. The vets also found a whole potato, some fragments of plastic and algae in her stomach following examination of her stomach contents. The results of the post-mortem were released to the media at a press conference in January and scientific consensus is still in agreement with this verdict.

The Natural History Museum announced, on 23 January 2006, that it would be acquiring the bones of the whale for the Museum’s scientific research collection. The whale was de-fleshed at Gravesend a day-long process involving eight scientists from the Museum. The skeletal remains were then taken to the Museums of Scotland, to remove any remaining tissue, which took more than a week, using a biological cleaning agent.

Following the exhibition, the bones of the Thames whale (and its custom-made case) will be returned to the Museum’s scientific research collection. This national collection holds more than 2,500 whale, dolphin and porpoise specimens. One of the main uses of this collection is to look at the differences that may exist within a single species, which may highlight whether a population is unique. Using this information biologists and conservationists are able to put strategies into place to protect these animals.

For information on how to book tickets for the exhibition see this Saturday’s Guardian, 13 January

Entry: Free, with a time-booked slot only
Address: The Newsroom, the Guardian and Observer, archive and visitor centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1

Nature Live events:

  • Cuts to the Bone, Saturday 20 January, 12.00 and 14.30
    Parasites in Whales and Dolphins, Sunday 21 January, 12.00 and 14.30
  • Cuts to the Bone, Monday 22 January, 14.30
    Parasites in Whales and Dolphins, Tuesday 23 January, 14.30
  • Science, the Media and that Whale, Thursday 25 January, 19.00 (Booking essential, please call 020 7942 5555)
    Wonders of the Collection: The Thames Whale, Friday 26 January, 14.30
  • Corpses to Collections, Saturday 27 January, 12.00 and 14.30, and Tuesday 30 January, 14.30

Notes for editors

Winner of the 2006 Independent award for the UKs favourite museum, gallery or heritage attraction at the Museum and Heritage Awards for Excellence, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.

The UK Whale and Dolphin Stranding Scheme is funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to monitor strandings of live animals, numbers of dead carcasses, to identify the species involved, their age, sex distribution, biology, ecology and causes of death. It runs in association with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Scottish Executive. Currently co-ordinated by the Zoological Society of London, its partners include:  Natural History Museum, Scottish Agricultural College, Marine Environmental Monitoring, The Wildlife Trusts, British Divers Marine Life Rescue, Brixham Sea Watch, Durlston Marine Project, Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group. 

To interview Richard Sabin please contact:
Natural History Museum Press Office, tel: +44 (0)20 7942 5654 or email

To photograph or film in the exhibition or arrange media tickets please contact:
Guardian Press Office, tel: +44 (0)20 7239 9936 or email.

British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) is an entirely voluntary organisation (registered charity: 803438).

Visit the official Thames Whale web site.