Jaws in De Haan

Until the end of August the 't Schelpestik community centre in the seaside resort of De Haan is hosting an exceptional exhibition on whales, dolphins and porpoises that have washed up on our shores. Barely a year after fin whale Anthony ended up on the beach at De Haan his impressive jaws are on show at “Kijk, een walvis!” (Look, a Whale!).

Whales and porpoises regularly wash up on Flemish shores and so it was on St Anthony's Day in 2018 that a dead fin whale was seen drifting off De Haan. Local mayor Wilfried Vandaele takes up the story: “A live fin whale had been noticed in Dutch waters five days previously, but by the time it ended up off the Flemish coast it had already died. Maritime police feared the animal could endanger navigation and the decision was taken to beach it at Vosseslag in De Haan where cranes and lorries could easily get onto the beach. Maritime police towed the animal to shallow water from where it drifted ashore of its own accord.”

“Time was very much of the essence, because a spring tide was expected in the course of the afternoon and there were fears the animal could explode with smaller pieces being scattered through the water. Methane builds up in the stomach of the dead animals resulting in the danger of explosion.”

This was no idle threat because when marine biologists punctured the skin of the dead fin whale during the clean-up operation a small explosion did occur. Once the animal was safely ashore marine biologists from Ghent University immediately set to work. Rendering service Rendac was also involved to dispose of what remained of the animal after scientists had taken away the parts they wished to preserve. Parts of the animal were even used to fuel a biomass energy plant. Pride of place at the exhibition goes to the jaws of the fin whale that because of the saint's day on which it came ashore was named Anthony.

Wilfred Vandaele: “The fin whale was a young male that died of natural causes. Its stomach was practically empty. It weighed 30 tons and measured 18 metres. We couldn't preserve the entire animal, but together with the Veterinary Medicine Department at Ghent University the decision was taken to clean up the animal's jaws and these can now be seen at our exhibition “Kijk een walvis!”

In addition to the jaws, a vertebra and Anthony's right hand pectoral fin (photo last but one) or flipper have also been preserved and are on show in De Haan. TV News, photographs and newspaper articles help to tell Anthony's remarkable tale. But there is a lot more. Harbour porpoises, bottlenose dolphins and white beaked dolphins are all seen as indigenous to our waters. Skeletons of all three provided by Ghent University are now on show in De Haan.

The exhibition also provides an opportunity to take a closer look at the animals that were washed ashore along our coast and especially on the beaches of De Haan and Wenduine. Fishermen have been based at Wenduine for centuries and indeed, as you can see in a photograph above, the harbour porpoise features on the resort's coat of arms. Fishermen were not enamoured of harbour porpoises because of the damage they could do to their nets and as early as 1340 the Guild of Wenduine Fishers was given the right to harpoon porpoises. Exhibits provided by the Ecomare Museum on the Dutch island of Texel allow the exhibition to tell the story of whale-hunting through the centuries. Whale products are also on show as visitors get information about the countries that still allow whale-hunting and the various animals that are being caught.

Over the years a whole host of whales, porpoises and dolphins have come ashore in our waters. In 1827 a gigantic sperm whale was washed ashore in Ostend, then as now when such an event occurs, attracting large crowds. A Dr Herman Kessels preserved the 27 metre long animal that went on world tours before ending up in a museum in St Petersburg!

In recent times several animals turned up on the bows of vessels returning to port. In 2015 a ship brought a fin whale back to the port of Ghent. The skeleton was preserved by Ghent University and after a stint hanging in Ghent's St Bavo's Cathedral the animal now adorns the restaurant at Ghent University's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

At the exhibition, marvel at the vertebrae preserved from Theo, a sperm whale that came ashore in Heist Bay in 2012.

Whales, porpoises and dolphins have been washed ashore for centuries, but the oldest recorded beaching in Wenduine happened in 1843 when an orca (last photo) came ashore. The skull is preserved in the Royal Institute for Natural Sciences in Brussels, but for the occasion has made the outing to De Haan.

Don't miss the skulls of the mother and son pointed-beak dolphins that were washed up in Wenduine in 1933. The young male was still alive and its skull still shows the bullet wound that killed it.

“Kijk een walvis!” (Look a Whale!) runs at the community centre 't Schelpestik, Vosseslag 131 in De Haan until the end of August. Tram stop Vosseslag. The exhibition is staged in conjunction with Ghent University, the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences in Brussels, the Ecomare Museum of Texel in the Netherlands, the National Fisheries Museum Navigo in Oostduinkerke, Adrie and Ineke Vonk and other private collectors. A handy booklet full of information and colourful photos is also available in English, Dutch, French and German.