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The Object at Hand

It took four years, a shipwright and help from the British to create the blue whale model installed in the National Museum of Natural History. After 33 years, it still attracts millions annually

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Friello remembers that the eight-man crew of carpenters, a shipwright and plastics experts who built the whale, eventually hoisting it up to a midair position, clambered up and down the web of scaffolding more than 30 feet above the ground, without hard hats or safety belts, for four years.

A cabinetmaker, Friello was put in charge of cutting oval wooden frames-like those used to shape the fuselage of model airplanes-and laying longitudinal strips over them to create a skeleton for the whale's body. Two layers of thick fiberglass mat were applied over plywood nailed to the frames. Then Friello crawled inside the whale and tore out all of the supporting wood-to keep the model's weight down to a mere 8,000 pounds. As a last act, he and his mates painted their initials inside the whale's condo-size mouth.

In 1963, the same year that blue whales gained some measure of international protection, Natural History's huge new proxy whale was finally installed where it is today, permanently arched in an arrested dive, seeming to plunge downward over the heads of awed visitors.

Despite A. Remington Kellogg's eye for detail, the spectacular model has not been free of controversy. Blues feed near the surface by opening their immense jaws (the top hinge pops up like the top of a silent butler) and engulfing thousands of gallons of water along with myriad small, shrimp-like crustaceans called krill. Mouth and throat are accordion pleated to be expandable, the better to take in more water and krill. With the throat fully expanded, a whale's front end is bulbous and swollen. As the next step in the feeding process, the whale closes a fine-meshed screen of baleen at the front of its mouth and expels all the water. The nourishing krill are conveniently caught by the baleen netting.

For centuries, whales were depicted as having bulging throats-based on blurry surface sitings and dead whales, whose throats were often distended either by gases caused by decomposition or by compressed air pumped in to help float them after they were harpooned. The blue whale diving down at NMNH visitors has just such a throat. For the first decade or so of its display life, this was regarded as a lifelike touch. But by the late 1970s, an increase in scuba diving and underwater photography began to provide new information about the look and behavior of blues in action. Among such was a fact that whale experts at NMNH find embarrassing: after feeding, blue whales usually spew out their extra water before they dive. A model of a blue that is both diving and bulbous with water, experts say, shows an improbable situation.

On the heels (or flukes) of that information came a few other cosmetic inaccuracies. Its skin is too smooth, critics complain. The epidermis of real whales shows the ravages of time, scars from shark bites, assorted cuts and scabs, whale lice and barnacles.

If critics have their way, by the turn of the 21st century yet another whale model, this time warts and all, will succeed the first two. Meanwhile, just as it is, the sheer size and bulk of A. Remington Kellogg's creature can still take the breath away and plunge the mind into the mysteries of the briny deep.

By Adele Conover


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