The Blue Whale

Displaying the blue whale The history of our blue whale A few facts about blue whales Who was Otto Lipfert

 


Displaying the blue whale

Displaying a blue whale is a complex and challenging process at the best of times.   The WA Museum's blue whale project had even more challenges due to the heritage-listed building, the fragile, 120-year old skeleton, a dynamic pose that has never been done before and a metal armature (frame) that was bespoke for this project.  

The pose of our whale is based on the latest research into blue whale feeding behaviour.  Using drone video and tracking devices, scientists revealed that blue whales roll and lunge as they feed on millions of krill. 



The history of our blue whale, Otto

In August 1897, a young girl named Daisy Locke came across a beached blue whale near the mouth of the Vasse River.  The whale was reported to the Western Australian Museum and over the next three years, the WA Museum’s taxidermist, Otto Lipfert, oversaw its preparation for transport to the WA Museum. It would become one of the State’s most beloved treasures.

Two Japanese fishermen and a local farmer helped Mr Lipfert to remove the flesh from the bones. The skeleton was then left to bleach in the sun for more than a year. The bones were individually labelled so they could be reassembled at the Museum.  The 24-metre-long skeleton was transported to the Busselton Railway Station in a horse-drawn carriage, where it was taken by train up to Perth. This was no mean feat.  The cranium (skull) weighs more than 800 kilograms today.  At the time it would have weighed nearly twice that, due to the oils stored in the bones. 

19th century photo of a large whale on a beach with people standing around.

The blue whale stranded on the beach at the mouth of the Vasse River., Busselton.
Image copyright WA Museum

Black and white photo of a horse drawn cart holding a large bone.
The blue whale is transported bone by bone in a horse drawn cart.
Image copyright WA Museum

 

The skeleton was reconstructed in a three-sided shed behind the WA Museum, on the corner of Francis and Beaufort streets. The bones were supported off the ground by more than a tonne of iron rods.

One visitor remembers visiting the blue whale in the shed when she was a young girl:

It was impossible to see the whole thing in one go, I was only a little kid and from my perspective you couldn’t see it all. It was just the size of it and not being able to see it all at once, it was always exciting to go and see the blue whale.

Katherine Arundel

A black and white photo of a giant whale in a shed, three boys look on.

The whale in the three-sided shed on the corner of Francis and Beaufort Streets.
Image copyright WA Museum

The blue whale was in this location until 1968. Due to the exposure to the elements, including sunlight, the bones appear bleached, or whiter, on one side. 

In the 1970s a new building was constructed for the WA Museum on Francis Street. The skeleton was packed up ready for its new display. Getting the giant whale into the new Francis Street building was quite a feat. A crane had to be used to lift the skeleton in to the fifth floor of the Museum before the roofing was completed in the early 1970s.

A large crant lifts a heavy load up toward a building under construction.>

The whale is craned into the Francis Street building.
Image copyright WA Museum

 

Many Western Australians will remember their excitement and wonder as they reached the extraordinary display.

… I always remember as a kid racing to the top floor to see the whale swimming through the clouds.

Jerome O’Driscmann

A large blue whale sits in a 1970s style room with blue carpet.
The blue whale on display in the Francis St Building.
Image copyright WA Museum

The Francis Street Building was closed in 2003 for safety reasons. The blue whale was once again disassembled and moved into storage at the Museum's Collections and Research Centre in Welshpool. For almost 17 years the skeleton has been under wraps, waiting for its next home.




Who was Otto Lipfert


A few facts about blue whales

Blue whales are very, very big

In fact, they are the largest animals to have ever existed…bigger than any dinosaur.

They are about as long as three buses and as heavy as fifteen buses. Their tongues can weigh as much as an elephant, and their heart as much as a smart car.

Baby blue whales (calves) can weigh up to three tonnes at birth!

Despite their size they are agile and acrobatic

Blue whales roll and dive as they lunge-feed on millions of krill. They approach krill patches at roughly 10.7 kilometres an hour.  When they open their huge mouths to feed they slow down to 1.7 kilometers an hour.  

They are also very, very noisy

Blue whales have one of the loudest calls in the animal kingdom. At 188 decibels they are louder than a plane’s engine.

These calls allow them to communicate with each other from across long distances. In good conditions they can hear each other up to 1600 kilometres away.

They live long lives

On average blue whales live 80 to 90 years. The oldest blue whale ever found was around 110 year old.

Scientists can estimate the age of a deceased whale by counting the bands of light and dark wax in its ears, like counting tree rings.

They have an appetite

Despite their size they feed almost exclusively on krill which are tiny prawn-like animals. They eat 2-4 tonnes of krill a day, that’s a lot!

Their blowholes are powerful

When blue whales exhale, the spray from their blowhole shoots nearly 10 meters in the air.

They nearly became extinct

In the 1900s blue whale baleen was used in the fashion industry. Baleen is made of keratin (like your fingernails) and this flexible material was perfect for items such as corsets.

Because of this value, and the commercial use of other parts of the whale (like whale oil), they were hunted on such a scale that blue whales were nearly exterminated.

But what is baleen?

Blue whales have fringed plates of fingernail-like material attached to their upper jaws - baleen. They feed by gulping an enormous amount of water (and krill) and expanding the pleated skin on their throat and belly to make space for the water. Then, with their massive tongue, they force the water out through the baleen plates leaving the krill behind, ready for them to swallow.

They are still in endangered

Blue whales are still recovering from aggressive hunting in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The International Whaling Commission was set up in 1966 to ensure whales were protected. Blue whales have managed only a minor recovery since then.

They have few predators, although sharks and killer whales have been known to attack them. Many are injured or die each year from impacts with large ships. Plastic pollution, both entanglement in fishing nets as well as eating microplastics is also a threat.

A blue whale swimming in a bright blue ocean.
A blue whale swimming in a bright blue ocean.
Michael Haluwana, Aeroture