Sperm Whale Bones and Scrimshaw

It’s taken me a few days to regain some semblance of sanity after making it back home, and I’m finally starting to go through images, with the ever-optimistic hope that I’ll be able to edit a handful before taking off again.

Here’s one, a photo I took late at night in Tonga, around 04:00:


vertebrae from beached sperm whale, tonga
Sperm whale vertebrae on white sand beach


The back story: A dead sperm whale washed ashore on one of the smaller islands in Vava’u some months ago. Friends retrieved most of the skeletal structure, and buried some of the bones in the sand to clean them.


Well, all you have to do is catch a whiff of rotting whale flesh, and the answer is obvious!

In order to handle the bones, you need to remove all the soft tissue, a task which is best accomplished by microorganisms, like those that populate subterranean ecosystems.

Anyway, even though these vertebral sections had been underground for many weeks, they were still somewhat oily (recall that sperm whales were hunted for their high-quality oil) and still reeked of a pungent odour reminiscent of sweaty socks packed in a gym locker, then left to fester through a hot, humid summer. Maybe with a handful of dead rats mixed in. Mmm, mmm good.

Though the sperm whale bones were already on the beach, I had to move and place them for this photo, a task which literally stunk.

It was worth it though (I think), as it’s not often that I have the opportunity to wake up at 03:30 to drag big, heavy(!), smelly sperm whale parts across many metres of unstable sand (without leaving obvious footprints or other marks), and then have to reposition said stinky stuff multiple times in order to avoid the rapidly rising tide, all while fiddling with an ungainly tripod and attempting to use a camera that was nearly out of power (note to self: charge batteries before undertaking stupid stuff).

See how glamorous my life is?

While we’re on the subject of sperm whales, following is another photo, one that required much less personal suffering to take. These beautiful pieces are scrimshaw on sperm whale teeth done by a young friend.


modern scrimshaw on sperm whale teeth
Beautiful scrimshaw done by a talented young friend