Q: Growing up in Raleigh, I had many opportunities to visit the N.C. Museum near Capitol Square. One of the exhibits was a huge whale skeleton suspended overhead. It seemed impossibly huge. What kind of whale was it, and what became of it?
Answer: According to Ann K. Brinson, marketing and communications officer for the N.C. Museum of History, “The whale skeleton now hangs in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, just across the way from the North Carolina Museum of History.”
The whale in question, nicknamed “Trouble,” was a dead sperm whale that washed ashore on Wrightsville Beach in April 1928. It was just over 54 feet long, 33 feet in girth, and when intact was estimated to weigh 100,000 pounds.
According to reports of the event, about 50,000 people from six states traveled to Wrightsville Beach to get a firsthand look at the whale. “Numerous professional and amateur photographers captured this unique moment, recording both the whale and the throngs who continued to gawk at it — despite a growing smell of decay described as something akin to a ‘factory for unexpurgated skunks,’” according to the museum.
Beach authorities offered it to the state museum, and a representative, Harry T. Davis, traveled from Raleigh to Wrightsville Beach. However, one condition of turning it over to the museum was that it be removed quickly, as the smell was becoming overpowering.
“The health officials wanted the whale towed 20 miles out to sea,” according to the museum. “Dismayed that the museum would lose a valuable specimen, Davis cut off the lower jaw left it on the beach under the care of the local police chief. He would be back with a truck next week.... After Davis cut off the jaw and went back to the museum, (museum director H.H.) Brimley has the idea: if they were going to tow it, then they might as well tow it up to Topsail where he had friend with land where they could ‘park’ it. Davis was horrified when the tow line broke just before reaching Topsail but fortunately the whale washed up on a sand bar.”
It took close to two years from the time the whale washed ashore until it went on display at the museum in February 1930, and it came to be known as “Trouble” because of all the hardships the museum faced in the process.
“Trouble has been moved several times since then: twice for remodeling, once for cleaning and once when the museum changed buildings,” according to an article on the history of the whale in Wrightsville Beach magazine. “Today, a stylized image of Trouble, the Wrightsville Beach whale, has become the museum’s mascot. T-shirts, mugs, key chains and other merchandise bearing the logo can be purchased in the museum store.”
If you’d like to learn more about Trouble and see historical photographs of the whale and the work that went into moving it, you can read an extensive 66-page digital archive on the subject at files.naturalsciences.org/Trouble.pdf.