Posthumous Fame: The Story of Hope the Blue Whale Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Posthumous Fame: The Story of Hope the Blue Whale

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A blue whale skeleton in a museum.

The late-19th Century was not a safe time for whales. Commercial whaling was rife and some whale species were hunted to the point of near-extinction. This is the story of one female blue whale, which managed to survive long enough, it is thought, to bear a calf, and, after her death, became the star attraction in a world-famous museum.

For all of her ten years of life, our whale was anonymous. Some whales are social creatures and travel together in pods, but blue whales live solitary lives. Our whale probably only came into contact with three other blue whales during her lifetime - her mother, and possibly a mate and their calf. Scientists later studied the baleen plates of our whale, which contain a chemical record of where the whale has been and what it was eating. They could tell that she had visited the Azores/Cape Verde area, spending around a year in that warmer environment. This gives a strong indication that she was there to give birth and suckle her calf, in less treacherous waters than the colder northern Atlantic Ocean and polar regions. Mother whales usually suckle their young for between six months and two years, but they can remain together for much longer.

There's no record of what happened to our whale's calf - we can only hope it survived to perpetuate the species, the largest ever known to exist on Earth. Our mother whale ended up on a beach in County Wexford, Ireland, on 25 March, 1891, probably stranded following a storm. There exists a photograph of several men on and around the beached whale. One of the men, fisherman Edward Wickham, has delivered the coup de grâce to the stricken creature. Our whale's story might have ended there, but for the fact that her body was stripped of flesh, then her skeleton was boiled and sold to Wexford businessman William Armstrong for the princely sum of £111. In 1892 Armstrong sold the 4.5-ton of bones to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London, for £250 - equivalent to around £32,600 today. The 25m (82ft)-long blue whale skeleton spent the next 42 years in storage. In 1934 it went on display in the Mammal Hall, where it remained until 2017.

Dippy (a Diplodocus dinosaur skeleton cast) had been wowing visitors at the Museum entrance from 1979 until 2017 when he was removed and prepared for a two-year tour of the UK. A replacement creature was required for centre stage, with enough wow factor to rival the dinosaur. The blue whale in the Mammal Hall was selected, and given the name Hope. Her 221 bones were cleaned and restored. Some had to be replaced as a few bones were missing from the right flipper. They were recreated using modern technology - a 3D printer. Hope is suspended from the ceiling in Hintze Hall, the main exhibition hall, between still-living species on the west side and extinct creatures on the east side. Visitors can walk beneath her, and gaze upwards in wonderment at the magnificent creature.

Blue whales came close to extinction once, but they were one of the first species that people who cared about the natural world were determined to save. In 1955 blue whales were given complete protection in the North Atlantic under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Blue whale conservation status is Endangered. Whaling is banned in many countries but some cultures depend upon cetacean produce to survive. Hopefully there are enough blue whales abiding in Earth's oceans to perpetuate the species for centuries to come.

Photo of a blue whale courtesy of the NOAA

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