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[Readings]

Save the Whales

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From Fathoms: The World in the Whale, which was published in July by Simon and Schuster.

Many international collecting institutions aim to feature a blue whale among their centerpieces. Suspended from the ceiling of the American Museum of Natural History is a ninety-four-foot replica of a female blue, found dead off the coast of South America in 1923, made of polyurethane, a fiberglass coating, and six hundred pounds of paint. A heart, salvaged from a blue whale killed in a heavy sea-ice season near Newfoundland in 2014, was sent by the Royal Ontario Museum to Germany to be plastinated—it is the size of a wrecking ball and very pink. But the Museum of Natural History in Gothenburg, Sweden, holds the only real stuffed blue whale. In 1865, a calf beached alive outside Näset. The first act of its discoverers was to poke its eyes out. It should “not be able to see us,” the men tasked with killing it are recorded as saying. This took two days. One of its eyes was later retrieved from the sea and put in glycerin and alcohol; the second was lost. After it died, the whale calf was taken apart, and its skin was preserved with arsenic and mercury chloride, before being pieced back together using copper furniture studs. The mouth was remade to allow the jaw to hinge all the way open, in the style of a grand piano. Its interior was decked out as a lounge, with wooden benches, red carpet, and a ceiling lined in blue muslin decorated with little gold stars. On special occasions, museum attendants sometimes served dinner and coffee inside it. American tourists sought to have their photos taken there, praying in the fashion of Jonah confined to the Leviathan’s belly. In the 1930s, two lovers were caught inside the whale, having consummated their passions in its esophagus—and then the whale’s mouth was closed.


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October 2020