The first recorded specimen of a Beluga or White Whale (Delphinapterus leucas) for the East Coast, south of the Firth of Forth was recorded on the 10th June 1903.
The whale was caught by salmon fishermen off the coast at South Shields sands and sold to local dealers, Relph and Hall on the Fish Quay, North Shields. The event caused quite a stir on the quayside and Mr W. H. Young, a member of the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne, had the foresight to arrange a group photograph to record the day.
The whale, recorded as being 14 feet 2 inches (1.27m) long, is displayed on a large metal-wheeled trolley with its head propped up on an upturned crate and its tail on a barrel. Behind it stand the fish traders and processors as well as the fishermen who had brought the carcass ashore.
After the whale had been displayed to the public in South Shields and on the Town Moor in Newcastle the bones were sent to the Hancock Museum. In the Museum Curator’s manuscript reports the whale bones were left in a macerating tub for three years, taken out in June 1906 and laid out on the roof to bleach. By 1910 the skeleton had been mounted onto a permanent stand and placed on display in the lower east corridor of the Museum. The Curator E Leonard Gill also records in his report,
the chief piece of new work that we have in hand is the making of a half model of the whale itself to fit around one side of the skeleton. We are not perfectly certain that the method we have adopted of making this hollow model will be successful, though we feel quietly confident about it. We modelled up the lateral half of the whale in brick clay, and when the model was finished we gave it a thick coat of shellac, followed by oil. The hollow model we are going to use we are making with layers of paper, pasted one over another as a shell over the clay; and if we can get the paper shell to dry sufficiently and to lift away cleanly from the clay I think there will be no serious difficulties left.
The skeleton of the Beluga was recorded as still being on display in the 1960s but it now seems to have disappeared from the Museum collections and the life size model was displayed on the wall of the north east stairwell until the Museum refurbishment in 2006.
Belugas are an Arctic and sub-Arctic cetacean normally found at least two thousand miles away to the north of out coastline either around Greenland or in the Barents Sea from the island archipelago of Svalbard eastwards. The Sea Watch Foundation which reports on cetacean sightings around our coast note that it is very rare for this distinctive species to travel as far south as the North East however two Belugas where spotted off the coast at Warkworth, Northumberland in August 2015, so it is still worth watching out for them.
Thankfully, Belugas are now protected in our waters under the 1986 International Moratorium on Commercial Whaling. Subsistence hunting of small numbers of Belugas is still allowed in the Arctic by only a few Inuit and Alaskan Native groups.
Read the full story of the Beluga as reported by Society member Alexander Meek in the Transactions of the Natural History Society (New Series) Vol 1, 1904-1907, pp.39-40
The capture of a White Whale or Beluga, Delphinapterus leucas, Pall., in our district is an event of some importance, seeing that the species has not hitherto been recorded south of the Forth. The Forth specimen was obtained in 1815, but further north in Scotland and on the west coast the Beluga has been stranded or captured pretty frequently. The local specimen was captured at the South Shields sands on the morning of June 10th, 1903, in the nets of the salmon fisher-men. The whale was observed by the fishermen after he had approached close to the shore, and they at once made the attempt to surround him with their nets. Three nets were brought into use, and he was ultimately entangled in one of them. Two ropes were fastened to his tail, but he was able to tow the two boats some four miles to sea before he was exhausted. The carcase was landed at the Fish Quay, North Shields, and sold to Messrs. Relph and Hall. It is gratifying to be able to say that these gentlemen, with a public spirited generosity which happily is not rare on Tyneside, have presented the skeleton to the Hancock Museum.
The thanks of the Society are due also to Mr. W. H. Young, F.Z.S., who, recognising the importance of the capture, put himself to a great deal of trouble to obtain the photograph which is here reproduced, and to Mr. Robinson by whom the photograph was taken.
Mr. E. P. Witten, B.Sc, obtained the following measurements : — Length, 14 feet 2 inches; girth, 7 feet 8 inches; the gape measured 12 inches; and the eye, which had a longitudinal diameter of 1 inch, was placed about 4 inches behind the angle of the mouth.
My absence from home at the time prevented me seeing the specimen until the second morning after its capture, and by that time the skin had been removed and the dissection completed. I was able, however, to confirm the determination which had been made by my co-workers at the Cullercoats Laboratory that it was a full-grown male example, and to make arrangements for the conveyance of the skeleton to the Museum. It was then possible to see that there were eight teeth in each jaw, or thirty-two altogether.
The fishermen at different parts of the north-east coast have reported that another White Whale was seen on several occasions during the summer.