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.

The Wonders Of Watchtree

After nearly a year at university, Zahrah and I decided it was past time we paid Watchtree Nature Reserve a visit. Now I had the car, it was only a twenty minute journey. The result was one of the best wildlife encounters I’ve had.

We began the day in the wetlands hide. Almost immediately we were met by a group of goldfinches, swiftly followed by some tree sparrows, a species I’d never seen before. I’m used to seeing goldfinches in pairs, but it was a treat seeing even more at once. After gobbling a seed they would turn and study their surroundings, always on constant alert. I keep forgetting just how lucky I am to be an apex predator. I couldn’t imagine waking up each day and wondering if I’d end up being somebody’s breakfast. I commend the natural world for its gritty determination – we humans have so little to worry about in comparison.


After the goldfinches left we were joined by a great-spotted woodpecker and two more species I’d never seen before, redpoll and reed bunting. I couldn’t believe how soon the birds had come after we’d entered the hide.




After some quality time photographing the birds, we meandered past the marsh pasture. Here we saw more birds, including a lone oystercatcher and a buzzard wheeling overhead, pestered as always by corvids.


Then, eagle-eyed Zahrah cried out and pointed to a hare speeding along through the field. Too quick to even keep in frame let alone get a clear photo of, I watched the creature in awe as it bolted out of sight. They really are formidable animals, and not to be messed with.

Giddy with happiness at our good fortune, we visited Pow Woods to eat our sandwiches. After, we skirted the perimeter. I was just ducking under a low-hanging branch when I glimpsed something ivory-coloured. When I made out antlers I almost shrieked. Sat on a raised mound of grass was a roe buck skull, antlers intact. The jaw was missing, but it was still the most incredible thing I’d seen (perhaps dwarfed by the sei whale bones at Tullie House, but I’d found the roe all by myself).


For a while I’ve wondered why skulls are so often found without the rest of the body. As if the magic Pow Woods wanted to prove me wrong, twenty minutes later we found another roe skull, this time with its whole skeleton! This individual was female, lacking the prickly antlers. All her bones were laid out flat on the grass; scattered ribs, vertebrae still loosely set together and long slender leg bones.

By this point Zahrah and I were in disbelief. I relished the opportunity to study something so intricate and complex – skin and flesh had been stripped away to reveal the inner workings of a animal. A thousand questions popped in my own skull. How old was she? How did she die? Most of the bones were unbroken. Both skulls, male and female, had had their noses shattered. Later that evening, I discovered that foxes often chew this part of the skull to get at the nose tissue inside. I could only assume both deer had died of old age – surely nothing in Watchtree Nature Reserve would be big enough to take one down. Even in the wild, adult deer have few predators besides ourselves.

Zahrah and I walked back to the visitor centre in a daze. We’d seen a spectrum of birds, a hare, and now a complete roe deer skeleton. How could our day be better?

A live roe deer.

As we walked through the scot’s pine, a lone buck meandered across our path. No doubt he’d heard, seen and smelt us coming, but still took his time foraging, eventually disappearing into the trees. At the time my camera had been in my bag – shameful on my part – so the only shot I managed to get was his rear end as he melted away out of sight. Still, I valued the experience alone.


Safe to say, Zahrah and I are planning to return to Watchtree Nature Reserve in the very near future. Although, I’m not sure we can better this visit!


Cleaning The Whale

I’ve been volunteering at Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, for a few weeks now. My role involves documenting the prehistoric specimens in the stock room, including their age and locality. Eventually, I’ll be photographing the specimens and logging each one onto a database.

My work has now been put on hold for a few weeks, having been temporarily replaced by something even more exciting. The museum has acquired a near complete sei whale skeleton, which will be put up on display some time next year. The whale was discovered in October 2014 near Drigg in West Cumbria, stranded on a beach.

Yesterday I was involved in cleaning the whale bones. They’d been buried with manure for a year to decompose, so were all caked in soil and sand. Myself and two other volunteers – who happened to be two of my fellow Wildlife Media students – got to work scrubbing the bones clean. First, we hosed them down to soften the soil. Then we used soft brushes to gently remove the residue and expose the bone beneath. In three hours, we managed to get through all the vertebrae.


The image above is of plates that should have been fused to the vertebrae – this leads the curator of natural sciences, Simon Jackson, to believe that the whale was an undeveloped juvenile. However, they can’t say with confidence which gender the animal was.


Here are the ribs, each nearly as tall as me! Although a juvenile, the whale was approximately fourteen metres in length.

Luckily the weather was fantastic, so once we’d cleaned the bones we could lay them out to dry in the sun. With the dirt washed away, they looked amazing. Being photographers, we couldn’t help snapping away. When I came to uni I never thought I’d say I’ve helped clean part of a whale skeleton. This is just another of the fantastic experiences I’ve had in my first year alone.

After we’ve finished our lengthy but rewarding job the bones will need to be treated, to remove the oils that give them an orange colour. Then they’ll be ready to be put together and displayed in the museum atrium. Here’s hoping the whale will give Tullie House well deserved promotion – Dippy the Diplodocus may have some competition!