Whale Bones and Walking Stones

As usual, I trundled to Tullie House Museum for my weekly volunteer shift. Right now everything is focussed on the whale project. Following the discovery of a 16m fin whale skeleton on a beach in Cumbria, Tullie House now has the makings of a smart new welcome feature in their entrance hall. The bones are being taken away for professional cleaning in less than a month now. There’s still a lot to be done before that happens, so it’s all systems go!

Today I was joined by a new volunteer called Will, who turned out to be a fascinating character. As we set to work on scrubbing dried whale flesh off vertebrae the size of my hips, we got chatting about wildlife. Turns out, he’d travelled to some stunning places for expeditions, something I was incredibly jealous of. One one expedition in Abu Dhabi, he had the chance to excavate fossilised camel skeletons as part of his master’s degree in zoo archeology. Once they reached the ribs, the guide assured them there would be nothing of interest to investigate. Will decided to convince him otherwise and together they found an ancient spearhead embedded in the bone. The small discovery prompted a thousand questions: who killed this camel? For what reason? It was fascinating.

Soon, Will is heading off the to the Far East, but he’s done a lot of work in East Greenland. Highlights from his trips here included a sighting of a polar bear jumping through an enlarged seal breathing hole and into the ocean below, and a herd of very intimidating musk oxen, as well as polar wolves, snow white relatives of the grey wolf. On one encounter, Will’s team heard a distressed ringed plover and glanced out the window of their lodgings to see an arctic wolf mere feet away.

As amazing as these stories were to hear (as I sat on the floor scraping white fat off whale bones), my favourite was the tale of the walking stones. Will described how, when rocks fall onto a glacier, they create a natural phenomenon. While the ice around the rock melts under the sun, the patch directly beneath it is kept sheltered. After many hours, the rock is “lifted” by its ice pedestal as the rest of the glacier melts away. Soon though, even the elevated platform succumbs to the sun’s heat and the rock falls onto a patch below, beginning the whole process again. The result is a very slow game of slinky, but one that fills me with such joy that nature is so beautifully playful.

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