Whale of a time at the Museum

Willy’s Tale

False Killer Whale porpoising

False Killer Whale (Pseudorca crassidens). Source: Protected Resources Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, California, Public Domain, U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

The whale theme continues at the museum this week!

On 13 April 2016, we received a donation of the remains of a false killer whale from Underwater World Singapore (UWS). We are thankful for this generous donation and the support from UWS.

While news of the Singapore sperm whale has dominated the press since last July, little is known about Willy, the false killer whale that was stranded in Singapore more than two decades ago.

On 23 January 1994, two men who went crab hunting off Tuas spotted the whale, which they initially mistook for a shark. They alerted Underwater World Singapore (UWS) and the animal was identified as a false killer whale by UWS divers despatched to the site.

Screenshot of Newspaper article on Willy

The Straits Times article about Willy’s stranding back in January 27 1994. 

News of the whale stranding spread and captured the nation’s imagination. The whale was dubbed ‘Willy’ by the press after the highly popular 1990s film “Free Willy”, a stirring story about a boy who befriends a killer whale or orca called Willy—which was captured from the wild—and sets him free.

Rescue attempts to move the whale into deeper waters spanned a week but were ultimately unsuccessful. Willy later went missing on 29 January 1994 and was found dead the next day by some fishermen. The UWS then collected the body to conduct a post-mortem and solve some of the mysteries surrounding her arrival and death.

Autopsy and Preservation at Underwater World

As the autopsy was underway, it turned out that Willy was an old adult female, and not a young adult male as first presumed. The cause of death was also identified as a combination of infectious injuries, old age and severe trauma as a result of being trapped in the bay.

Separated from her group, with numerous puncture wounds on the left side of her body, these were probable factors that caused Willy to seek shelter at Tuas. Willy was also found with an empty stomach, indicating that she was highly stressed at that point in time.

Willy’s body was later buried at Lorong Halus in Tampines. Her lower jaw with ten intact teeth was salvaged and preserved and used as an educational display at UWS.

Willy's remains

Willy’s remains consisting of ten teeth and a lower jaw. Photo by Jeremy Yeo.

Significant donation

What does this represent for us at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM)?

The donation represents another important and key addition to the mammal collection at LKCNHM. With the accession of this false killer whale specimen found locally, the mammal collection has been further expanded and we believe, would add to our knowledge of cetaceans in Singapore waters.

We hope that the evidence of the wonderful marine life in our waters will further serve as a reminder for future generations to treasure the rich marine biodiversity that surrounds our little red dot.

For more information on the story of Willy, you can find it at the Nature Society Singapore’s newsletter, The Pangolin, Volume 7, 1994.

Sketch of False Killer Whale Skull

Sketch of Pseudorca crassidens head. 1866. Source: Recent memoirs on the Cetacea. Author: W.W.

Salvaging a Dead Sea Turtle at Changi Beach

[Salvaging a carcass is typically a disheartening affair, as we prefer to see our biodiversity alive. But it is always good to have some hope that the specimen we pick up would be able to contribute to science or allow others to learn more about our biodiversity. Here, Sankar A, our Toddycats SG50 intern, recounts his experience on a carcass salvage operation. – Marcus Chua]

I was just about to go home from work on 14 May 2015, when I saw a message on my phone from Marcus to the Toddycats, “Anyone on campus would like to head down with me for a carcass salvage?” Intrigued, I replied that I was free and could help out. 20 minutes later, I was climbing into a van heading towards Changi. I expected the carcass to be a roadkill, so it was a bit of a shock when Marcus told me that it was actually a Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas). It was thought to have been hit by the propeller of a boat and had been split across its shell. NParks had kindly brought the carcass ashore and had kept it aside for the Museum to collect it.

20150514 Green turtle 1_MC

The large sea turtle had been split across the carapace.

We drove over to Changi Beach Carpark 6, stopping only to pick up the taxidermists. We met Ruth Tan, NParks manager of coastal parks, who facilitated the salvage process and showed us where the carcass was held. After donning the necessary PPE (vinyl gloves and N95 mask), we carried the carcass over to a designated area, where the taxidermists could work. Despite the masks, the smell was pretty bad. The first thing we did was to take measurements and “crime scene” photos for record purposes. The turtle was large, with a carapace length of about 0.8 m. Marcus also ascertained that the turtle was a female, based on the short tail length. We took tissue samples from the carcass for cryogenic preservation. Since I had never taken a tissue sample before, Marcus showed me a couple of examples before allowing me to do one.

Is the haze back? Nope, just observing safety reguations!

Is the haze back? Nope, just wearing the appropriate PPE!

As the taxidermists expertly prepared the carcass, structures of the turtle’s skeleton became apparent. I saw how the carapace (upper section of the shell) of the turtle was essentially formed out of a modified backbone and ribs like the specimen in the image below.

The turtle's carapace is composed of a modified spine and ribcage

This specimen is a Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) at the Museum of Science in Boston. Image by Daderot.

Because the boat’s propeller had split the shell in two, we were given a rare look into the cross-section of a Sea Turtle. It was genuinely a surreal experience. We were all thoroughly impressed by the speed and professionalism that the taxidermists exhibited.

20150514 Green turtle 2_MC

Measuring the Sea Turtle’s carcass.

As the turtle was being deconstructed before my eyes, it occurred to me that this was the first wild Sea Turtle that I had ever seen. It was a pity that my first encounter with this rare creature had to be under such circumstances.  While there is an undeniable scientific and educational value of this specimen, it cannot possibly compare to the ecological value of such a large breeding female swimming in open waters.

Despite being internationally endangered, the fact that these turtles can be found in our waters never ceases to amaze me. Yet, they continue to be threatened by human activity, which this specimen serves as a grim reminder of. Nevertheless, it shows that we as humans have an important role to play in the conservation of such marine biodiversity.

A carcass washed up at East Coast Park beach and what happened next got everyone excited

[Note: Images of decomposing carcasses are found in this post]

A carcass of an unidentified vertebrate washed up at East Coast Park (ECP) beach on 15 Jul 2014. A park user who noticed the remains notified NParks.

NParks staff verified the report and passed the message from the Parks division (Liew Qi) to the National Biodiversity Centre (Cheo Pei Rong), to the LKCNHM collections manager, Kelvin Lim, then to me. By now, it was being referred to as a cetacean carcass (dolphin or porpoise).

The carcass on ECP beach. Photo by Marcus Chua

On the morning of 16 Jul 2014, I went down to ECP to check and retrieve the carcass. There, it was confirmed to be indeed a cetacean as the skull, flippers and tail fluke was visible, but in an advanced state of decomposition.

Head of the carcass. Photo by Marcus Chua.

The decision was then made to retrieve the carcass. The body, which was almost as heavy as me, was bagged with the aid of two very helpful NParks staff, Tan Wen and Jan Tan (who was on her second week on the job).

As the carcass was too big to fit in a car, Department of Biological Sciences (DBS) graduate students, Maxine Mowe, Liew Jia Huan and Ng Ting Hui, helped by facilitating a pick up with the department’s vehicle from fieldwork at Marina Reservoir. Ting Hui kindly drove the carcass to the museum.


Skeletal flipper of the Irrawaddy dolphin showing the five digits of the pentadactyl limb – like our hands. Photo by Kho Ziyi.

Back at the museum, the sense of excitement (it was a rare salvage after all) was enough to motivate the museum folk to brave the stench for a peek at the carcass while it was prepared for bone preservation by Kate Pocklington and myself. Some bits of tissue was frozen for the cryogenic collection. Kelvin quickly selected skulls from the Zoological Reference Collection as comparative material. The carcass was then identified to be an internationally threatened Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) measuring approximately 2.2 m. Tammy Lim and Kho Ziyi documented the process, and we all smelled like dead cetaceans at the end of the day.