Friends First - The Pandemic Whale

Curator of Natural Sciences, Alistair McLean, creating the new display © Museums Sheffield

This November at Weston Park Museum we welcomed a new addition to the city’s collection: the skeleton of a pilot whale with a great story attached. For you, our Friends, here’s an exclusive chance to learn more about its discovery, and its importance to the collection from our Curator of Natural Sciences, Alistair McLean:

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people have found new ways to make use of their time. The story of the pandemic whale is one of the more unusual and wonderful that we have come across.

In 2015, Sheffield-based biologist, Dave Clay, discovered the carcass of a pilot whale which had been stranded on a beach in South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Recognising the learning opportunity the specimen presented, he decided to recover the remains and transport them home to Sheffield. To complete the decomposition process, he had to bury the remains in his garden. When the first national lockdown happened in March, Dave decided to rearticulate the skeleton. Not having every bone, he used whatever materials he could lay his hands on to mock-up replacements. The bones were drilled, and then fixed together with fencing wire, and the skeleton began to take shape.

Pilot whale skeleton on the beach

By the summer the whale was assembled and Dave began displaying the skeleton in a series of outdoor installations across the city. It was hung from trees in Weston and Endcliffe Parks, from an overhang at Stanage Edge and, perhaps most memorably, underneath the arch of Blonk Street Bridge. Although the installations were anonymous, they attracted a great deal of interest from passers-by curious to find out what was going on.

Skeleton at Stanage Edge

Dave’s intention with the installations was to engage people with nature. For Dave, the whale skeleton is something that evolution has made; a chance coming together of features that interact with one another to increase the animal’s probability of survival and reproduction. It shows not only adaptations for life in the ocean, but relics of the evolutionary history of whales. It has a rudimentary pelvis, even though the back legs of the animal are non-existent. The articulation of the vertebrae is typically Mammalian. It enables an up-and-down motion of the spine, rather than the side-to-side motion found in fish, amphibians and reptiles. The flippers also possess five digits, just like our own hands and feet. All these features reveal where whales fit in to the great tree of life.

Skeleton at Weston Park

The pilot whale skeleton has now been generously gifted by Dave to Sheffield’s collections, where it will be appreciated by visitors to Weston Park Museum for many years to come.

We feel very fortunate to have the whale join the city’s collection. It isn’t often that a specimen comes to the museum that has such a broad significance. It has historical poignancy due to its connection with the pandemic; it’s also a terrific teaching aid, illustrating how animals evolve to adapt to their environment. Dave’s endeavour to articulate the skeleton and make the missing bones is a wonderful creative achievement and because he noted the stranding number (a number assigned to all beached whales found in the UK), we know exactly where it is from and when it died. This makes it an important scientific specimen with a unique genetic history and morphology (size and shape), which will be useful for researchers in the future. But perhaps best of all, at 4.5 metres long, it’s really impressive to look at, and will undoubtedly become another favourite of the museum.

Skeleton in Weston Park Museum

Images (top to bottom):

  • Alistair with the whale skeleton on display at Weston Park Museum © Museums Sheffield
  • The whale skeleton where it was found on a beach in South Uist in the Outer Hebrides © Dave Clay
  • The whale skeleton installation at Stanage Edge © Dave Clay
  • The whale skeleton installation at Weston Park © Dave Clay
  • The whale skeleton on display in Weston Park Museum © Museums Sheffield



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