The first exhibit that Museum visitors encounter is the paired lower jaws of a sperm whale, that giant of the oceans. The jaws are displayed opposite the main entrance and demand attention by sheer size alone. They were collected in the first half of the 19th century and came to the Museum in the early 1860’s from the Christ Church Anatomical Museum.
They are especially important because they belonged to a specimen of about 27m in length, considerably larger than the maximum size recorded for contemporary specimens, which are usually no more than around 20m long. The ‘leviathan whale’ in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was based on a creature one meter shorter at 26 m long; and the famous specimen in the Nantucket Whaling Museum in Massachusetts was about 24m long.
The sperm whale is the largest of the toothed whales and its name comes from the waxy substance called “spermaceti” that is found in its gigantic head. Spermaceti was used extensively in the 18th century for candle-making and as a fuel for oil lamps. The lower jaws are very narrow and carry 18 to 26 rounded teeth, used for catching and ingesting giant squid, the sperm whale’s principal food.
Until the end of the 19th century, sperm whales were extensively hunted, and again during World War II when they were taken in large numbers for material used in war machinery. They are now highly protected and new specimens are quite impossible to obtain, especially specimens of this magnificent size.