(15)  Comets, Moby the whale, and a foreshore problem

On the evening of 20 March 1997, with the Hale-Bopp comet and a full moon shining brightly in the northern skies, a sperm whale (physeter catodon) was found stranded near the rail and road bridges over the Firth of Forth at Queensferry. The beast was re-floated but over the next few days refused to leave the area, despite attempts by BP tugs and the pleasure boat Maid of the Forth to push him back out to sea, where an appropriate food supply might be available and he would be able to resume his migratory trip from the Arctic to the Azores. However, “Moby”, as the whale was dubbed by the media, persisted in returning and swimming westwards up-river, and was eventually abandoned to his own devices. He beached and died on the foreshore at Airth on 31 March – the first sperm whale to be stranded in the Forth since 1769. This raised a question about ownership and disposal of the carcass, which was 15.2 metres in length and weighed 38.5 tonnes. Discussions involved the environmental health department of Falkirk Council, Marine Pollution Control (a branch of the Coastguards), Deep Sea World (a commercial museum based at North Queensferry), the Receiver of Wrecks, and the National Museums of Scotland (NMS). However, in Scots law the Crown appears to be the owner of at least larger stranded whales (see Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia, vol 18, para 543 note 1 for the authorities, which include Regiam Majestatem and Balfour’s Practicks), and Moby’s remains were finally taken over by NMS. His malodorous skeleton has already been on display at the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh and at Deep Sea World, the smell being caused by oil oozing slowly from the bones.

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