How did it start?

The cetacean strandings project at the Museum has been running for 100 years, since the responsibility for beached whales, dolphins and porpoises was handed over by the Crown.

The Crown held rights on stranded cetaceans from 1324, when they were known as 'fishes royal' since the Crown had first claim on them.

At that time, the animals would have had great economic value.

  • Oils were used for lighting, heating, food, soaps and lubricants.
  • Bones could be used to make furniture (vertebrae) and fence pickets (ribs). Whale bone or the keratin baleen plates were later used for making corsets.
  • Ambergris, a grey waxy substance formed in whale intestines, was incorporated into cosmetics, headache remedies, perfume and even love potions.
Scientific strandings

In 1913, the rights to study cetaceans stranded or caught in the waters of England and Wales for scientific research were transferred from the Crown to the Museum by the government.

A female Cuvier's beaked whale in Northern Ireland was the first animal reported to the Museum in the summer of 1913. 

Since then, each animal is given a unique stranded whale (SW) number. This is catalogued alongside information about:

  • where and when it was stranded
  • sex
  • length 
  • cause of death, if known

Museum scientists initially stored information in a card index. They now use a digital database. With this information we are learning about cetacean distribution and lifestyles.

Contact us

Cetacean strandings project 

Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road

Tel: 0207 942 5155 
Email us


All whales, dolphins and porpoises are cetaceans. The name comes from the Latin cetus, meaning 'large sea animal'. Cetaceans are marine mammals.

A sea creature washed up on a beach or river bank that can't get back out to sea becomes known as a stranding. Animals may wash up already dead, or die as a result of becoming stranded.