The Whale and the Freezer

Here’s another article I wrote during my time interning at Student and Graduate Publishing. My colleagues were so interested in the whale project at Tullie House that they asked me to write a piece on my volunteering experience. 

I’ve just finished my second year studying Wildlife Media. It’s really quite a niche course and when I tell people about it I get a mix of surprise, curiosity and almost every time I’m asked if I’ll be the next Attenborough.

A career in wildlife media is seriously competitive, making work experience essential. If you’re interested in nature and conservation take a look at Conservation Careers for inspiration. A lot of wildlife-related opportunities aren’t paid, due to the charitable organisations offering them, so my first two years have been full of volunteering. The thing with volunteering is you never know what to expect, and my experiences have proven that anything can happen.

I’d probably say one of my volunteering highlights this year was cleaning whale bones, something I never thought I’d say. Back in 2014, a massive whale skeleton was found on a beach in Cumbria and taken in by the local museum. I joined forces with two of my course mates to take on the behemoth. There was flesh hanging off the bones and they smelt nothing short of pungent. Donning our glamorous all-in-one suits, wellies and goggles, we got to work scrubbing the bones clean.

Nearly half a year later, after three hours a week of funky odours and a ridiculous amount of disposable gloves, we said our farewells to the whale, who we’d both grown very attached to. The bones have been sent off for industrial cleaning, and will then be hung up in all their glory in the museum atrium. Have a read of the full story.

That wasn’t the end of my antics at the museum, however. A week after the whale left us, we began a new project: the freezer. Deep in the basement of the museum – think restricted section of the Hogwarts library – are all kinds of treasures, some beautiful and others less so. There’s a freezer containing several hundred frozen specimens, from bats that could hide in your palm to far larger animals like otters and barn owls. It was our job to work through the freezer and document the name, date, locality and donor of every specimen to put them all on a database.

A lot of people would feel quite queasy at the thought of handling frozen dead animals, the majority of which were roadkill and had seen far better days. Luckily, or perhaps tragically, my friend and I couldn’t get enough of it. I have a particular obsession with British birds, so getting to see hawfinches, bullfinches and waxwings up close was a real privilege. And not just birds: one week we found a large bin bag containing the very rare and elusive blue mink, a member of the mustelid family with otters, stoats and weasels.

In fact, my friend and I were both quite sad when we reached the bottom of the freezer. Although it was a real shame that the animals had arrived at the museum in freezer bags, it was incredible to see all those birds, mammals and a few reptiles far closer than we ever could in the wild. It gave me an even greater appreciation of wildlife and provided an unforgettable experience that’s a great story to tell.

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