Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Whale Skeleton at the Museum

The first specimen of a marine mammal housed at the museum was the skeleton of a sperm whale caught in Algoa Bay in 1897. This is the information provided by the curator Greg Hofmeyer.

Main picture: Head of the sperm whale

According to Hofmeyer this skeleton is from an adult male sperm whale taken in Algoa Bay 1897, by the whaling company Coles & Searle. The curator of the Port Elizabeth Museum at the time, Mr A Marshall, obtained the skeleton for the museum for public display. It is mentioned in the book, “The natural history of South Africa“, which was written by one of Marshall’s successors, the famous FW Fitzsimmons.  

This drawing highlights why whaling was so dangerous

Anyway, the whale was the first specimen of a marine mammal collected by the PE Municipality. From such beginnings the marine mammal collection grew to become the major scientific resource that it is now. It currently consists of over 6 000 specimens and is actively growing. Being one of the largest marine mammal collections in the world, and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.

Sperm whale skeleton outside the museum with the original Elizabeth Hotel on the right

Greg is not sure where the whale was displayed before the museum moved to its current premises, but once in Humewood, the skeleton was displayed outside the front entrance next to the car park for many years. He does not know when it was removed, but apparently it gradually deteriorated, being exposed to the elements for years. Most of the skeleton must have been discarded but a few bones were retained. These include the mandibles which were “reconditioned” by Gerhard Steenkamp, who was the taxidermist at the time. Photos exist of him working on the mandibles. They were then put on display in the Marine Hall, where they still are. They make a magnificent display, being almost 3m long and showing the very large (fake) teeth of this whale. The other bones, which consist of part of one pectoral flipper, are in the collection stores. The accession number for this whale is PEM N0018.

The Sperm Whale in history

According to W. Fitzsimons, the Sperm Whale can be distinguished from all other whales by its massive head, which is about a fourth of the length of the body, its great size, and the presence of twenty to twenty-five large conical teeth in either side of the lower jaw. The upper jaw is devoid of whalebone, but instead there is a set of teeth which are rudimentary and do not cut through the gum. The male Sperm Whale grows to a length of 6o feet while the female is not so massive in form, and is only about one-half the
length of the male.

Above: Skeleton of a Southern Right whale

This whale was almost hunted to extinction for its spermaceti oil stored in a huge cavity in its skull, which congeals on exposure to the air. Spermaceti (sperm oil), from which the whale derives its name, was a prime target of the whaling industry, and was sought after for use in oil lamps, lubricants, and candles. Ambergris, a solid waxy waste product sometimes present in its digestive system, is still highly valued as a fixative in perfumes, among other uses. Beachcombers look out for ambergris as flotsam.

The Sperm Whale feeds upon the larger fishes, squids, octopi and cuttles. To obtain its food it sounds or dives, often to great depths. It inhabits all the oceans of the world with the exception of the Polar regions, and wanders vast distances. It is found in greatest abundance in the tropical and sub-tropical seas.

Museum in Bird Street

Writing in the early 1920s, Fitzsimons noted that Sperm Whales· in the. past assembled in great “schools” of twenty to several hundred individuals, composed of cows and one to a dozen bulls, according to the size of the herd. These formed one division or troop, and the young bulls gathered together and formed a second division. Owing to incessant persecution by man, Sperm Whales are now only met with in pairs or in small schools of a few individuals.

Current status of sperm whales

The total number of sperm whales in the world is unknown, but is thought to be in the hundreds of thousands. The conservation outlook is brighter than for many other whales. Commercial whaling has ceased, and the species is protected almost worldwide, though records indicate that in the 11-year period starting from 2000, Japan has caught 51 sperm whales. Fishermen do not target the creatures sperm whales eat, but long-line fishing operations in the Gulf of Alaska have complained about sperm whales stealing fish from their lines.

Currently, entanglement in fishing nets and collisions with ships represent the greatest threats to the sperm whale population. Other threats include ingestion of marine debris, ocean noise, and chemical pollution.


  • Greg Hofmyer – curator at the PE Museum
  • Wikipedia
  • Natural History of South Africa, Volume IV, Mammals by FW Fitzsimons (London, 1920, Longman, Green & Co)


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