Murder mystery: How were a pod of sperm whales found dead, 45m up a sea cliff?

“Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” – Professor James Goff

It’s 1912 on the Miramar peninsula – a gloriously green and hilly cape, jutting into the Pacific Ocean just south of Wellington, New Zealand. A researcher is walking along the headland searching for evidence of ancient human settlements, namely of the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous peoples. Instead, he happens across the skeletons of an entire pod of whales.

Finding whale bones along the coast shouldn’t be particularly surprisingly… but these bones aren’t on a low-lying beach. They’re atop a sea cliff, 45m above sea level (or 148 feet) and at their most extreme, almost a kilometre inland (that’s half a mile).

How the flip did these whales die here?

Miramar peninsula
The steep coast of the Miramar peninsula: How’d a bunch of whales end up here? Photo: Wikicommons/Aidan

Wild animals or humans can’t be blamed on this occasion. There are no teeth marks on the bones, no cuts from the tools of early Maori… in fact, the skeletons are so well preserved it’s as if they levitated here. While this is probably not the case, the real and actual theory, is not too dissimilar.

“Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” describes Professor James Goff, a geologist who re-examined this old, strange report in more modern times. He proposes that either the coastline here uplifted, taking the whale skeletons with it. Or, a tsunami swept them there.

The largest whale skeleton found at the site was 18m – or 60ft – a good indication the species was the sperm whale. Photo: Flickr/budak

Thanks to the work of geologists like Goff, we know that the coast of the Miramar peninsula has uplifted recently – geologically speaking. But it’s only risen about 8.5m (28ft) over the last 7000 years. This means the whales still rose a remarkable 35m above their ocean home (at least)… and that’s higher than a blue whale is long. Goff believes the most logical cause of this transportation is a tsunami.

Here’s what probably went down: Our original, 20th century researcher had uncovered the gravesite of a very unfortunate pod of sperm whales. A species common around the New Zealand coast, these whales were caught up in a huge tsunami – one with a wave reaching 35m above sea level – and were consequently washed upwards and inland by the incredible force. As the wave slowly drained back down the steep Miramar cliffs and back into the ocean, it left the pod behind to perish.

Given the state of the whale bones – they crumbled to dust upon being touched – this tsunami happened a long time ago, before human inhabitation on the peninsula. The skeletons were therefore an integral clue that this tsunami had even taken place. Sadly, the site has since been built on to make way for a housing development, but it’s discovery at least helped continue the discussion, and the investigation, into the ancient history of tsunami. By better understanding how tsunamis have happened in the past, we can gain a greater insight into the threat we face from them in the future. Let’s hope the whales are catching hints too.

“Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”: This pod of sperm whales were delivered to their final resting place by a giant tsunami. Photo: NOAA


Goff, J. R., & Chagué-Goff, C. (2009). Brief Communication: Cetaceans and tsunamis–whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences9(3), 855-857.


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