The Canterbury Museum’s Blue Whale Skeleton

Who remembers this fella? Nothing symbolises the Canterbury Museum during my childhood more than this exhibit – that and the old Cobb & Co coach!

On the 17th February 1908, Canterbury Museum’s curator, Edgar R. Waite couldn’t quite believe the goss circulating around Christchurch that day. A dead whale had washed up on a beach at Okarito, a dot on the map, roughly 137 km south-west of Hokitika.

In 1908, Okarito boasted of 7 houses and 2 hotels. It had been a great gold rush boom town of 10,000 people. It once had 31 hotels, 3 banks, a court and many merchant stores. $6,000,000 dollars worth of gold came out of that township by the end of its heyday.

So excited by the news, I don’t think Edgar even finished his cup of tea before grabbing his coat and paced the Museum’s corridors in search of William Sparks, the Museum’s taxidermist. The two men left for the West Coast that very day. They wanted to claim this wonderous find for Canterbury!

The pair reached the West Coast in 13 hours and I’m sure reluctantly stayed the night in Greymouth. By 9am the following morning, they had reached Hokitia. It became pretty clear by the lack of resources available that they weren’t the only party attempting to claim the prize.

They managed to locate a driver – who had never driven to Okarito before – who agreed to take them for a very hefty price. Unable to get a horse, they had to settle on using a mule that proved to be quite a character unto himself.
“…he had a habit of stopping and backing up…” Edgar said afterwards.
A huge rain storm broke overhead and before long, rivers were swollen and the roads slippery.

The party made it to an accommodation house that night totally exhausted. The rain pounded on overnight and the next day as they continued on their way. To add to the drama, the mules’ trace became broken in the middle of a river crossing. The driver had to climb onto the poor animal’s back to fix the problem while the wild river swirled around him.

Finally the men laid their eyes on the prize when they saw the huge whale on its back, stretched out on the beach. There were already some men around the carcass, stripping it of its blubber. As the two approached, Edgar later said they were lucky to have been able to ‘hold down their breakfast’ with the odour that met them.

They learnt that the large mammal had been washed up a fortnight. Edgar was able to confirm that the corpse had been a female Blue Whale. She was 26 metres long; her head was 6 metres long and 3 metres wide. Her tail flute was 6 metres long also. She had died of old age and had been dead at sea for quite a few weeks.

With great pride, Edgar claimed the remains for the Canterbury Museum and work began to remove the meat. Between them, they only had one old hay knife so it wasn’t a quick process. Some of the flesh removed and left on the beach was the size of an Ox.

Edgar and William were forced to return to Christchurch without the whale, but soon the bones arrived outside the Museum on the back of a few drays, pulled by Clydesdales.

They were mounted and put on display from 1908 till 2001. They are still off display.

During the 1980’s, the skeleton was beside an outside courtyard attached to the Museum’s café. Although it made me nervous and I reckon it still would today, I always went over to it with my knees knocking. IT WAS HUGE!!
Did you know that a Blue Whale’s throat is no bigger than a man’s fist???

I hope this giant finds its way back out on display where it belongs, very soon!

3 Responses

  1. GILLIAN PORTER NEE ROYDS says:

    I remember that whale skeleton – always the first place to visit and it is imprinted on my memory as huge!

  2. Terry says:

    Thank you for posting this, I enjoyed the story. And I totally agree that such an amazing skeleton ought to be back on public display as soon as possible.
    One thing though. 76 metres does seem much too long, even for a blue whale, which seem to be around 30 metres maximum. Te Papa has a blog post, stating that this specimen is 26.5 metres long.

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