A photo of the whale skeleton's tail showing the individual bones

The blue whale: a cetacean relation

The Museum's vast blue whale skeleton is more than just a specimen - it's a 4.5-tonne parcel of social history.

The animal has been dead for more than 120 years, but the legend of the day it arrived in Ireland lives on in the minds of one very special family.

The story of the whale

This enormous specimen is the biggest of the 80 million that Museum staff care for, and the giant currently greets visitors to the Museum from the ceiling of Hintze Hall.

The blue whale is suspended from the Museum's ceiling

The blue whale is suspended from the Museum's ceiling

 

The animal's connection to this building begins in the Irish harbour town of Wexford, on the morning of 25 March 1891.

The female blue whale was probably migrating north when she was caught in shallow waters around the harbour.  

Once there, the whale got stuck on a sandy ridge called Swantons Bank, and never made it back out to sea.

A lifeboat pilot named Ned Wickham was the first - and the last - man to encounter the living whale. He led a team of men who rowed out to meet the arrival as she floundered.

A black and white photo of the whale after it stranded in 1891

The whale after it stranded in 1891. This is one of very few images of the whale alive that survive.

 

The group beat the whale with metal bars in a crude attempt to slay her, and Wickham eventually killed the animal when he plunged an improvised harpoon under one of the flippers, ending her misery.

Once it was dead, tourists gathered to view the body of this monster from the deep. Newspapers reported of the whale's arrival as a 'strange visitant from strange seas'.

The carcass was auctioned to a local business, and the skeleton of the leviathan was eventually sold to the Museum, where it has stayed ever since. It has been displayed in Hintze Hall since summer 2017.

liverpool-mercury-30-03-1891-two-column

A cutting from the Liverpool Mercury on 30 March 1891

It reads, 'Several whales have latterly been reported as having been seen off the Irish coast, and on Saturday the death of one 100ft long is reported from Wexford. On Thursday, a fisherman named Wickham, being at the entrance to the harbour, saw an unusual disturbance of the sea a short distance out. 

'He plainly discerned the back and tail of an enormous creature who was evidently struggling to get out of deep water. The pilots at the Fort station put out in a boat, but were cautious not to approach too close to the unusual visitor.

'They continued to watch, and on Friday, its struggles becoming weaker, Wickham ventured to appraoch the monster, and succeeded in plunging a long knife into the body of the creature under one of the fins. It turned out to be a whale about 100ft long by 60ft girth.'

A family legend

The story came full circle when three generations of Ned Wickham's descendants visited the Museum to see the skeleton for the first time.

Mary Costello, 78, is the granddaughter of Wickham, and his closest surviving relative. She visited London with her husband Edward, six children and numerous grandchildren.

They stood beneath the suspended skeleton to pay their respects on behalf of their ancestor.

The whale's dramatic death in Wexford had passed into legend by the time Mary was growing up. Mary was born nearly 50 years after the whale died, so she had never seen the skeleton. The family only knew of the story from newspapers clippings and faded photographs.

On finally seeing the animal for the first time, she said she was 'overwhelmed'.

She said, 'I have goosepimples. To come face-to-face with the animal my grandfather had such a close connection to, it's one of the biggest thrills of my life. I won't experience this feeling again.'

Mary was five years old when Wickham died in 1945. She doesn't remember him, but had been told he was a kind, loyal man.

She said, 'By the sound of it he was a good man. He was very caring and he wanted to look after people his whole life.'

Ned Wickham's descendants travelled to the Museum to see the whale skeleton for the first time

Ned Wickham's descendants travelled to the Museum to see the whale skeleton for the first time

 

The life of Ned Wickham

Wickham was born in the 1870s into a family that served in the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). He grew up to become the coxswain of the Wexford lifeboat, based in the fort on Rosslare Point.  

His wife reportedly died at a young age, leaving him with six children to care for alone.

A black and white photograph of Ned Wickham.

A photograph of Ned Wickham. He became well-known in the twon of Wexford for his bravery as a lifeboat pilot.

 

In his decades of lifeboat service, he saved countless people from the cold Irish seas. And years after the blue whale had died near the harbour, Ned proved himself a hero once again by playing a role in one of the greatest sea rescue operations ever undertaken off the Irish coast.

On 20 February 1914, a schooner called Mexico was wrecked on South Keeragh Island in a storm. It had been bound for Liverpool carrying cargo from Mexico.

Men from the Helen Blake Lifeboat, based at Fethard-on-Sea, attempted to rescue the crew after the ship hit rocks. Nine passengers lost their lives after being flung from the lifeboat by the wild seas.

Five of lifeboat crew and eight from the Mexico managed to safely make it to the shore of Keeragh Island that Friday afternoon. They were marooned there until the Monday morning, when Ned Wickham and fellow sailors from Wexford stepped in to help.

Wickham was awarded a silver clasp by the RNLI for his bravery.  

A photo of the shallow water and seabanks near Wexford, taken from the air

The sea around Wexford now is different to how it would have been 100 years ago, but it is thought that the whale stranded in shallow water like this

 

A new legacy

Mary Costello and her family no longer live in Wexford, but make regular visits there.

Eddie Costello, Mary's son and the great-grandson of Wickham, said, 'My mum used to tell us about this whale, but when we were young we thought she was making it all up.

'Then we discovered newspaper clippings in an old scrapbook and realised the Museum's whale was the Wexford whale.

'It's incredible to see this skeleton for the first time.

'I don't blame Ned for doing what he did. It was a fight for survival at the time. All those people saw was food and an opportunity to make money. Now, times have changed a lot and we think differently about the ocean. But back then, it was just another resource.

'It's very profound to think that of the millions of people who will see, admire and be inspired by the whale, we are standing here with such a unique direct link to the first person to encounter it.'

Mary's husband Edward added, 'Until now I had no appreciation of the enormity of this animal. Ned Wickham was an ordinary man living an ordinary life, and this was just another job for him.

'But everyone knows about the whale in Wexford. And as a family, we are so moved to finally see it. It's been a huge adventure.'

Experience the blue whale

Can't make it to the Museum? Explore the whale's rich history in the interactive online experience.

Visit the blue whale

Walk beneath the largest animal ever to have lived. Visit the Museum's Hintze Hall for free.