Whale Graveyards

Feb 22, 2018 0 comments

Movement of the earth’s crust over millions of years have drastically changed the geography of the planet such that what is land now was once the seabed and where stands a mountain today was once a vast ocean. It’s not uncommon, hence, to find whale fossils and those of ancient marine animals high and dry up on mountaintops and in the middle of deserts. Whales also wash ashore on beaches, get stranded and die. The flesh rot away leaving a skeleton on the beach. The beaches of Falkland Islands, for example, are littered with whale bones. Aside from ancient fossils and the occasional stranded whale, mass killing of whales during the 19th and early 20th centuries have left numerous “whale graveyards” around the world. Here are five onshore sites where you can find whale bones.

Atacama Desert, Chile


Chilean and Smithsonian paleontologists study several fossil whale skeletons at Cerro Ballena, next to the Pan-American Highway in Atacama Region, Chile, in 2011. Photo credit: Adam Metallo / Smithsonian Institution

One of the most astonishing discovery of whale fossils in recent years was made in the Atacama desert in Chile. During a road-widening project on the Pan-American Highway, researchers found dozens of whale skeletons lying side by side with bizarre walrus-faced dolphins, swimming sloths and other aquatic animals.

The presence of tiny algae fossils on nearby rocks along with abundant iron oxide—an important driver of algal blooms—suggest that the whales died after ingesting toxic algae. The dead and dying mammals were then washed into what was once an estuary and on to flat sands where they became buried over time. Researchers also believe that the carcasses were washed ashore in a series of four waves, all happening within a period of weeks. The fossils are between 6 million and 9 million years old.

The place where the discovery was made is already well-known for such exotic finds and is thus named Cerro Ballena, which means “Whale Hill”.


Two adult whales and a calf. Photo credit: Nick Pyenson/Smithsonian


Chilean and Smithsonian paleontologists study several fossil whale skeletons at Cerro Ballena, next to the Pan-American Highway in Atacama Region, Chile, in 2011. Photo credit: Adam Metallo / Smithsonian Institution

Wadi Al-Hitan, Egypt

The deserts of Egypt contains some of the best preserved paleontological sites in the world one of which is Wadi al-Hitan or the Valley of Whales. This remote valley in the Western Desert, some 150 km southwest of Cairo, contains valuable collection of fossils and bones of a now extinct, suborder of whales, called the archaeoceti. The archaeocetes constitute an important stage in the evolutionary history of whales because they provide evidence that whales were once a land-based animal. The fossils at Wadi Al-Hitan portrays vividly the form and life of these whales during their transition.

The fossils at Wadi Al-Hitan dating back to 50 million years show the youngest archaeocetes, in the last stages of evolution from land animals to a marine existence. They already display the typical streamlined body form of modern whales, whilst retaining certain primitive aspects of skull and tooth structure, as well as hind legs. Many of the whale skeletons are in good condition as they have been well preserved in the rock formations. Semi-complete skeletons are found in the valley and in some cases, even stomach contents are preserved. Fossil of other early animals such as those of sharks, crocodiles, sawfish, turtles and rays found at Wadi al-Hitan makes it possible to reconstruct the surrounding environmental and ecological conditions of the time.

The basin of Wadi Hitan was once submerged in water some 40 to 50 million years ago. At that time, the so-called Tethys Sea reached far south of the existing Mediterranean. The Tethys Sea is assumed to have retreated north and over the years deposited thick sediments of sandstone and limestone visible in rock formations in Wadi Hitan.

The skeletons were first discovered here in the early 1800 but were originally misidentified as some huge marine reptile. It was only later in 1902, that the species were identified as whales.


Photo credit: unknown


Photo credit: wally nelemans/Flickr

Whale Bone Alley, Yttygran Island

In the remote Siberian island of Yttygran, in the Bering Sea, there is an area known as the “Whale Bone Alley”. Forty years ago, Soviet archaeologists here discovered dozens of bowhead whale bones, and skulls carefully arranged in the ground stretching for 550 meters and running parallel to the shore. The rib bones are either stuck into the ground or propped up by rocks in a double line to form a sort of alley. Down the middle of the alley were huge skulls and square pits once thought to have contained tons of meat.

Archaeologists believe that the Whale Bone Alley was built as a shrine and sacred meeting place by the Eskimos in the 14th century. At that time there was a temporary ice age, that resulted in prolonged winter and food shortages which could have led to conflicts between Inuit tribes. Whale Bone Alley may have been the neutral place where they could come together to discuss their problems, take part in sacrificial offerings and store their meat in the square pits that once existed between the bone walls.

According to the local people, however, the site was nothing more than a place where whale hunters gathered and collectively butchered their catches, and then stored whale meat in pits. This simple theory is supported by the fact that the Yupik name for Yttygran is Sikliuk, which comes from the word Siklyugak, which means "meat pit" in Yupik.


Photo credit: www.beringiapark.ru



Spitsbergen, Norway

Most whaling stations of the past, after being abandoned, leave little signs of their whaling operation. Maybe a few bones littered around and a ruined building. But in the island of Spitsbergen, in Norway, there are remains that testify to the massive whale hunting that took place there.

Spitsbergen, the largest and only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago, was the site for extensive beluga hunting that began here in the 17th century and continued unabated well into the 20th century until the government started protecting the species in 1961. Most of the whaling stations were located on Van Keulenfjorden, a 30km long fjord on the west coast of Spitsbergen. Along headlands, beaches and bays, all the way to Bamsebu in Ingebrigtsenbukta, one can find remains of the large scale slaughtering that took place here. The most striking among them is the long white strip near the beach where thousands of beluga bones are piled up.

The beluga is a medium-size whale that lives primarily in the Arctic. They were easy prey for hunters due to their predictable migration patterns and the high population density in estuaries and surrounding coastal areas during the summer months.

The heaps of whale bones on the beach is estimated to contain the remains of 550 beluga whales. These bones and the nearby boats are designated as cultural remains and as such are protected and may not be touched or removed.


Photo credit: www.coolantarctica.com


Photo credit: www.coolantarctica.com


Photo credit: www.coolantarctica.com

Echachist, British Columbia

For several centuries, the tiny island of Echachist, west of Tofino island, in British Columbia, Canada, was where aboriginal whalers would bring harpooned whales ashore to be butchered. The Island’s location at the mouth of the Clayoquot Sound where it meets the Pacific made it an ideal site to launch whaling canoes. The Island’s even gravel beaches were also well suited for the landing of harpooned whales as thousands of animals migrated past Echachist every year.

The whales were killed right on the shore, and the meat was cut up, smoke-dried for the winter, and the blubber turned into oil. The bones were left behind in giant heaps, some of which are more than a thousand years old. Whale biologist now come to Echachist to dig up whale bones to learn about what kind of whales the islanders killed and even to study what kind of a diet that whale had.


Whale bones found at Echachist. Photo credit: Jim Darling/Hakai Magazine


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