Story by Lauren Coombes, Education Intern.
The Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) skeleton that hangs in the Jacob’s Family Gallery is a 37 foot long male nicknamed Quasimodo, whose estimated age at time of death was 3 years old. He was found in 1932 and was first hung in the museum in 1936. This is his story.
On December 29, 1932 Captain Ralph W. Wood noticed a mysterious black object floating off Noman’s Land, an island 3 miles off the southwest corner of Martha’s Vineyard. He lived on the island with his family and they were the island’s only inhabitants. Captain Wood then took his powerboat Flit out about a mile from the island and discovered that the object was the carcass of a humpback whale. As he arrived, so too did the U.S. Coast Guard. Captain Wood convinced the Coast Guard to help him tow the whale to land, citing it as a menace to navigation. From there they attached a four-inch hawser to the carcass. The whale was difficult to move and, “three such hawsers were snapped before the whale could be beached on the Noman’s Land shore!”
After towing it to shore they fastened the whale to a large rock. Soon after, a nor’easter then tore the whale from the rock, throwing it farther up shore and past the high water mark. The carcass was then left until August, 1933 when Wilbur G. Sherman, an old-time whaleman from New Bedford heard about the whale and arranged a meeting between Captain Wood and William H. Tripp, curator for the Old Dartmouth Historical Society. John B. Smith, a scientist connected with the Boston Museum of Natural History accompanied Tripp on his August visit to the island. Mr. Smith determined that the specimen could be salvaged and set up in a museum. Mr. Tripp then convinced the Historical Society’s board to purchase the whale. Mr. Tripp made the voyage to Noman’s Land accompanied by Captain Wood, Bertrand T. Wood (Captain Wood’s son), Mr. Sherman, Lester Brownell, George T. Plummer and Paul Lynam.
Throughout September the crew attempted to strip Quasimodo of his blubber, take out his bones, and tag them so they could easily be put back together later. Bertrand Wood kept a detailed journal, similar in style to that of a sea log, of the stripping and cataloguing process. He gave members of the project names that would befit a whale ship. Mr. Tripp was the Commodore, Ralph Wood was the Captain, Bertrand Wood was the first mate, Mr. Sherman was the official whale-cutter, William L. Pierce was the assistant cutter, Herbert Wood was the assistant cutter, and Jerome Fraser was the cook. As they took apart the whale they found that two finger bones were missing, and a news article also reported that the Atlas, the first vertebra of the skeleton, was also missing and never found. Though it is confirmed that the finger bones were in fact missing, there appears to be a proper fitting atlas on our skeleton.
The process of cleaning the bones was the next step and they were buried at Horseneck Beach in Westport, MA for 6 months. They were then uncovered, scraped, and reburied for another 6 months. This burying of a skeleton in sand was not an unusual way to prepare it. The location of the burial was kept confidential and was constantly under watch to prevent thieves and pranksters. After they were uncovered and scraped for the second time, they were left to bleach for several days in the sun, on the roof of the Museum. After the bleaching process was complete the skeleton was assembled and was hung in the Bourne Building in 1936. And curator Tripp quoted “We are no longer a whaling museum without a whale.” The whale was then taken down and reassembled in the 1980s near the theater, and with the completion of the Jacobs Family Gallery in August 2000, it now has its official home.
There is no confirmed cause of Quasimodo’s death, but one possibility is that he was killed by an orca (killer whale). This is due to the fact that Quasimodo was found without a tongue. It is a common behavior of orcas to bite off the tongues of other whales and leave them to die. Curator Tripp drew this conclusion when he examined the whale on his first visit to the island. Although not common in our coastal waters, orcas can be found off our coast. At the time this story was being written (summer 2016), an orca had been spotted by a fishing charter operator off the Massachusetts coast.
According to a recent NOAA report, there are fourteen humpback whale distinct population segments (DPS) that have been identified around the globe. Of those fourteen two are classified as threatened, the Central America DPS and the Western North Pacific DPS. An additional two groups are classified as endangered, the Arabian Sea DPS and the Cape Verde Islands/ Northwest Africa DPS. The current population is estimated to be 70,000-80,000, which is still less than 50% of their pre-whaling population. Though their biggest threat of commercial whaling no longer affects this species, they face many other significant threats. These threats include: entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, harassment from whale watch boats (especially in countries with little to no regulation), noise pollution and habitat impacts.
The Bulletin from Johnny Cake Hill A Newsletter from the Old Dartmouth Historical Society & Whaling Museum Fall 1987
The Standard-Times, New Bedford, MA Friday, July 17, 1987
Wood, Bertrand. Legends and Stories of Noman’s Land Island. (Jewett City, CT, 1978).
Our Latest ‘Whaling Voyage’. The Standard Times, New Bedford, MA Oct. 15, 1933.
The Standard Times New Bedford, MA, September 16, 1933.
NOAA Fisheries “Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Updated July 12, 2016. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/whales/humpback-whale.html