Selfies, Souvenirs and.. Sperm Whales?

Since the unfortunate death of three Sperm Whales near Skegness this week, social media has been awash with heated debate. The untimely demise of these whales, which later resulted in them stranding on the Lincolnshire coastline has provided an unparalleled opportunity for many people to get up close and personal with a relatively obscure species. An opportunity that very rarely presents itself. Sperm Whales, the largest of the toothed whales, are rarely encountered in British waters and thus are rarely visible to the general public. Is it then any wonder that in death these whales have developed into such a popular, if somewhat grizzly tourist attraction.

 With hundreds of people flocking to the county in order to admire the remains of these impressive beasts it will come as no surprise to learn that controversy quickly emerged. First the whales themselves were defaced by activists campaigning for nuclear disarmament, slogans such as “man’s fault” sprayed onto their remains in white paint. Next, social media and newspapers alike began to circulate images of a man extracting the teeth from one of the whales. This of course sparked widespread outrage and condemnation, much of which reached exponential levels on many social networking sites. Finally, tourists visiting the site, including families with young children, came under fire for taking selfies with the deceased creatures. Branded “disrespectful” and “vain” by members of the online community. All of this has provided substantial food for thought concerning our treatment of beached whales and indeed, deceased animals in general.


Via the Sun (Found here:

Before broaching the issue further I should stress that defacing animals, even dead ones, to achieve any sort of petty political goal is a no go in my book. As such I will not discussing the actions of the campaigners who saw fit to graffiti the corpses of these impressive animals – in my opinion this is nothing short of ignorant and does not warrant a mention. I am however much more interested in the following factors; the notion of tampering with animals such as this and the social media explosion centered on the selfie scenario.

Like many people, the sight of a man “hacking” the teeth from one of the Skegness whales riled me a little. This was however due more the fabricated tale concerning a Facebook page set up in order to sell the collected teeth. Possessing (and selling) Sperm Whale parts is in fact illegal in the UK, an offense under the ‘Conservation of Habitats and Species’ act. This was what vexed me about the situation, the potential sale of ‘whale ivory’ and a breach of the law protecting native species – Not the actual act of cutting up the whale itself. To many however it seems that the physical act of interfering with the whale has proven rather disturbing. Working with the assumption that the chap in question was indeed only collecting teeth for a personal collection, not with the intention of selling them, I find it hard to be overly angry at this, providing of course that he was simply naïve and not motivated by greed.

Like many naturalists, I keep an extensive collection of “treasures” I have found while out in the field over the years. Among these; skulls, wings, feathers, shells and other items all collected from deceased animals that no longer need them. To me, these items are not only highly educational, having contributed greatly to my knowledge of biology but also souvenirs of great days out in the countryside. I am far from alone in this regard it seems and indeed most of the naturalists I know maintain similar collections. Many regularly scour the beach in search of interesting finds, and dare I say, many would not think twice about picking up a loose whale tooth if chanced upon amid the sand.

 In my opinion, keeping collections of natural curiosities is a rather healthy habit. Such items can be used for educational purposes in schools, at events and further afield, something that does in fact occur with whale parts too from time to time. Indeed, certain marine conservation organizations possess samples of baleen and teeth extracted from stranded whales over the decades, all of course used to inform and educate. These items are not used for shady purposes, they are used for education and enjoyment. Yes, while the collection of whale parts is illegal (and I in no way advise it) I feel this entire situation highlights an incredibly negative attitude those who seek to enjoy creatures even after death. Branding the fellow in question a “butcher” for extracting teeth from the whale is in my opinion, a tad extreme. How many people are actually familiar with the law regarding cetaceans? What is the difference in collecting the skull of a seal or the wings of a wrecked seabird as opposed to the tooth of a whale? There were certainly no signs placed around the site advising people of the law and as such I am prepared to give this man the benefit of the doubt. He may well have breached the law but as a naturalist, knowing many people who could potentially innocently fall into the same trap, I find it difficult to join the clamor. Of course, if he was in fact familiar with the law and did indeed intend to sell the items that is a different story entirely, only time will tell however.

Now onto the selfie scenario. An interesting article on the subject was recently published by the Guardian’s Patrick Barkham (found here). Here Patrick defends those caught taking “smiling selfies” alongside the Skegness whales. Similarly, he also highlights the positive implications of such things and I must say, I wholly agree with him in this regard.

Scanning social media over the last few days I have seen countless comments criticizing people, including a father and his young son, for taking “disrespectful” photographs alongside the whale corpses. Similarly I have seen it said that those taking selfies alongside the whales are doing so for “vain” purposes and do not in fact appreciate the majesty of the animals lying dead before them. Referring first to the comments involving apparent disrespect and I would say just one thing, if the animal in question had been a badger, or perhaps a Blue Tit, would people have reacted the same? I do not think so. Whales it seems are held in incredibly high regard by the British population, not that I feel this is a bad thing. Appreciating these creatures for what they are, a true miracle of nature, is all well and good but attaching human qualities to them does bewilder me a bit. Whales, like any other species, are animals and with these particular individuals dead already I see no harm what so ever in visiting and photographing them. If anything, this shows a greater level of respect than most with many people travelling long distances to observe and learn about the bodies. There is no disrespect in photographing a dead whale, just as there is no disrespect in documenting a bird that unfortunately collides with your patio window. Even a selfie, though distasteful to some, is in essence just a photograph, a document of a memorable encounter. As such, the bile spouted regarding the father/son combo and their now infamous selfie is ultimately, rather annoying.

It will come as no surprise that some people are uncomfortable with the selfie culture that dominates at present. Some people find the notion of taking a photo containing ones self somewhat vain, others simply annoying. In regards to the dead whales, some people feel that taking a selfie detaches people from the magnitude of the event unfolding before them. That documenting that you were indeed at the site of the whale stranding somehow means that you do not appreciate the whales themselves for what they are. To me however this could not be further from the truth and sounds a bit like people dictating how others should enjoy nature. Something that no one in their right mind should ever presume to do.

People enjoy nature in different ways; some make detailed notes, others take in depth photographs, some draw and some it seems, take selfies. All fulfil the same purpose, all document the occasion and all help preserve memories of what, undoubtedly would have been a moving encounter. I do not at all begrudge selfie culture and in fact commend those at the forefront of this argument for going to see the whales in the first place. The young boy in question will surely have been enthralled by the triumph of natural engineering laid out before him, this could, further down the line lead to a career in the environmental field. If a selfie helps consolidate a lifelong interest in natural history who are we to judge? Each person is free to connect and engage with nature as they please, the important thing is that people are engaging in the first place. Lord knows, in a day where our population finds itself increasingly detached from the natural world, a little interaction is a good thing. If this comes through means of “vain” “cringe inducing” selfies, so be it. Engaging with nature in any way, whether by note taking, selfie taking or indeed frolicking naked around your local woodland is something to be celebrated, not condemned.

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James Common
James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.

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2 Responses

  1. Avatar Brian Egan says:

    Hi James
    On the issue of talking a trophy… on the one hand you point out it is a illegal and shouldn’t be done and then talk about how collecting natural curiosities is a rather healthy habit. This isn’t a shell on a beach or a dead sea bird on the shoreline, its a highly protected marine mammal. How many other people went down with tools to hack out teeth? Very few, most were happy to go and simply see them. I find it highly unlikely that anyone who would take as much effort, as the guy photographed, to extract a tooth would not do so without knowing its value (although accept it is possible).

    Ignorance of any law is no defence, “sorry officer I didn’t realise I was in a 30 I was doing 60! Or “sorry officer I didn’t realise I needed a license to photograph the Goshawks that abandoned the eggs they were sat on”.

    If someone goes with the intent to extract a tooth/teeth it is entirely reasonable to put the onus on them to make sure they are not breaking the law and if they do they should be treated as breaking the law. I’m not saying throw the book at them, a caution may be appropriate but think it is very important to not give mixed messages about that kind of thing.

    As for taking selfies… For me its not the act of taking pictures or selfies. For me it its the fact that people are smiling and laughing in these photos. This is in stark contrast to a lady on a BBC Look East report who was interviewed at the Hunstanton Sperm Whale. She broke down and started crying on screen as she was being interviewed. It was a very poignant moment as much of the media’s coverage of this has turned it into a bit of a circus for many people,.

    Parents taking kids to see these whales should be trying to educate their kids how how to act and show respect in this kind of situation. Smiling selfies are for happy times at the football or at your friends party, not stood in front of dead Sperm Whale especially considering it died a terribly stressful and traumatic death.

    I don’t believe people taking smiling selfies will be inspired to a career in nature conservation. To me it shows that they are already totally disconnected with nature and are very likely to remain so when this is how they behave when faced with the opportunity to show empathy. IMHO it is the right thing to do to questio such behaviour, there might be some chance that next time they will show some respect and actually stop and reflect on the death of the animal and for it not simply to be material for another status update on Facebook.


  2. I agree with you Brian that taking selfies and smiling in front of beached sperm whales reflects a disconnection with nature that is highly damaging. Children will be less likely to grow into adults who have empathy and respect for nature, if they are not given an example to follow. This is bad news for conservation because it makes it harder to get the general public involved and to share responsibility in the guardianship of the natural world.

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