A day amongst whales

I was at the Natural History Museum in London this week for two meetings and undertook my traditional excursion whilst in the museum to see the model of the blue whale, the largest animal in existence. A colleague once suggested that this ritual was a “small boy” thing – that the males of our species never grow out of our fascination with the biggest, fastest and fiercest experiences.   But she was wrong. I go to see this model because it gives me a sense of perspective: I am utterly dwarfed in the presence of the largest organism the world has ever seen.


The model of the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) in the Mammal Gallery at the Natural History Museum in London

The model is, apparently, 28 metres long. For simplicity, we’ll round this down to 20 metres, which means it is a little over one order of magnitude larger than me (180 cm).   I, in turn, am approximately two orders of magnitude larger than most of the invertebrate larvae and other bugs which crawl around our river beds, whilst they are about two orders of magnitude larger than the algae on which many of them feed.   The smallest algae are about an order of magnitude smaller still so, very roughly, six orders of magnitude separate the largest whales from the smallest algae.

If the blue whale was a midge larva, such as we encountered in the River Ehen last month (see “A winter wonderland in the River Ehen”), then the child standing in the front left of the image would be about the same size as some of the diatoms that I photographed from the same site (see “Food for Thought in the River Ehen”). It is also, roughly, the same as the difference in size between a cow and the blades of grass that she eats. That gives us a very rough idea of what an invertebrate “sees” as it crawls across a submerged stone (although, of course, an insect’s eye is very different to ours).

My pilgrimages to the Mammal Gallery also include a brief genuflection in front of the display case containing a fossil jaw of a now-extinct relative of the Blue Whale, Basilosaurus.   This belonged to a sub-order of the cetaceans called the Archaeocetes that finally died out about 23 million years ago. I have a soft spot for this organism as it provided me with a pseudonym, Basil O’Saurus, during the nine years that I wrote a column for the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management’s magazine In Practice, as well as my Twitter name, @basil0saurus (note that it is a zero, not an “oh” here).


The Natural History Museum’s display of a fossil jaw from Basilosaurus plus a scale model.   The jawbone is about 45 cm long.


A funny thing happened on my way to the Natural History Museum. I was reading Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw on the tube during the journey and, as the story approaches its end, we are told that Eliza Doolittle married Freddy Eynsford Hill and they opened a flower shop “in the arcade of a railway station not very far from the Victoria and Albert Museum”.   The V&A is directly opposite the Natural History Museum on Exhibition Road so the railway station can only be South Kensington, the station to which I was heading.   And, sure enough, there are still bunches of flowers on sale in the arcade although it seems that Eliza’s flower shop has now become a convenience store.


The arcade at South Kensington station: the location of Eliza Doolittle’s flower shop?

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