Sea Monster

The awe-stricken credulous slaves in the vicinity took it for the bones of one of the fallen angels.

HERMAN MELVILLE, MOBY DICK, Chapter 104 – THE FOSSIL WHALE

Exciting, and rather sad, times for fans of sea monsters – and who is not a fan of sea monsters? Four sperm whales have beached not all that far from Cambridge, one at Hunstanton on the North Norfolk coast, the others on the far side of the Wash, at Skegness. They probably came from the same pod, and are likely to have died at sea.

Jan_Saenredam03

Beached Whale near Beverwijk, 1602 – Jan Saenredam

Meanwhile, at Much Farm, again not far from Cambridge, palaeontologists (from, ahem, Oxford) have uncovered the fossilised bones of what might be a new species of plesiosaur. The plesiosaur is approximately 165 million years old, and so far over six hundred pieces have been uncovered. They are still missing the hind flippers, evidently, but the rest of him is pretty much there.

I have never come face-to-face with a plesiosaur, but a whale, even a beached whale, is quite a sight. I saw one when I was child, on a beach in Ireland. I remember only that it was colossal, and that it stank. Inevitably, it drew a crowd. Albrecht Dürer is said to have died following a trip to the coast of the Netherlands to see a whale. It had decomposed by the time he got there, and the artist caught a cold, which turned nasty and took him off. But I understand his motivation. A dead whale is a wonder.

So if you make it as far as Skegness or Hunstanton, wrap up warm. But if you cannot, there is a picture of a beached whale, previously mentioned on this blog, here in Cambridge at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Alternatively, the Museum of Zoology, with its famous Finback whale skeleton, will be re-opening at some point this year.

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