Professor Malcolm Clarke: Acclaimed authority on the
sperm whale and giant squid


Malcolm Clarke was an international expert on two animals which remain among the most mysterious on the planet: the sperm whale and the giant squid. He spent most of his adult life pursuing these creatures, from the whaling grounds of the Antarctic,to the deep waters off the Azores – the remote archipelago where he lived latterly, within daily sight of his subjects.

 There, on cliffs of the island of Pico – a black lump of volcanic rock in the mid-Atlantic – Clarke built a remarkable museum (in his garage) dedicated to sperm whales and squid. Inside was a lifesize mural of the largest female sperm whale found off the Azores. Outside stood a skeletal whale, similiarly full-sized, modelled in metal tubing. The effect was akin to a creation by Salvador Dali, a surreal impression only strengthened by the giant fabric squid hanging from the ceiling and sewn, to exacting dimensions, by Malcolm’s wife Dot. On my first visit there, with the BBC director Adam Low, Clarke took us into the grounds of his museum and from a giant tub filled with sea water fished out a large squid beak and handed it to me as a keepsake.

This tall, softly spoken man had spent his life with the monsters of the deep, and knew their secrets. From his shelves he produced a coffee jar filled with an odiferous lump of dung – ambergris, the almost mythic product of a whale’s lower intestines, still prized today as perfume fixative by the likes of Dior, Givenchy and Chanel. The smell stayed on my fingers for days.

Malcolm Clarke was born in Birmingham in 1930. As a young man he did his National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps from 1948 to 1950; he recalled driving patients from Aldershot to the monumental military hospital at Netley, on Southampton Water. After an early stint as a teacher in a Scunthorpe secondary modern he studied zoology at the University of Hull, and from 1954 to 1955 served as a government inspector on whaling ships in the Antarctic at a time when Britain was still a whaling nation.

He told me how the ship on which he was sailing caught 3,500 whales that season, and the fleet as a whole took 30,000 whales. The onboard butchery stayed with him: “We were at full cook the whole time,” sometimes taking 24 whales a day. Yet the young scientist saw the opportunities this terrible cull presented, via the vis-ceral availability of these still largely unknown creatures which spend 90 per cent of their lives in the depths.

Sperm whales can dive for up to a mile, and spend two hours down below feeding on squid. Clarke recalled one whale caught off Madeira whose stomach was found to contain 18,000 squid beaks. As a result, he became as interested in the enigmatic lives of the cephalopods as in the cetaceans.

Indeed, he told me in 2006 that whales had begun to annoy him, because they so voraciously ate the rival subjects of his studies.

Dr Rui Prieto of the University of the Azores recalls that Clarke worked in every ocean during his career, from South Africa, Australia, Hawaii, and the Faroe Islands. “He was happy as a child when handling a gooey Haliphron atlanticus [a seven-arm octopus], as I’ve seen him doing at sea because he was unable to wait until we were back on land.”

As he guided visitors around his eclectic museum, Clarke was full of arcane details: the fact that whales see only a blue-green spectrum, these colours being most useful in deep waters; that the bones of a whale are filled with oil – if they were filled with air they would explode as the whale dove into the pressurised water; and how the sperm whale has four stomachs, their intestines filled with thousands of parasitic nematode worms. It was “a disgusting sight”, he recalled, when the whales were cut open on the deck of a whaling ship.

His career spanned the eras of whaling and modern whale science. Few scientists could boast that lifelong, physical contact with their subjects. “When I went whaling nobody cared a toss about the whales, really,” he said, in his bluff, still faintly Birmingham accent.

It was at least partly due to his efforts that that changed. He contributed to 150 scientific papers and edited six books. Richard Sabin, Curator of Vertebrates at the Natural History Museum, said, “Malcolm was a very generous man; he was always giving of his time and willing to share his knowledge and experience… His research on giant squid and sperm whales generated new knowledge and led to a deeper understanding of the biology of these organisms.”

Clarke’s expertise gave him a global voice. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1981 for his work on the squid, and was visiting fellow at the National Oceanographic and the University of the Azores, where he was the first port of call for the BBC, Channel 4, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel and the Open University.

Hal Whitehead of Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, the pre-eminent contemporary expert on sperm whales, recalled that Clarke was “for many years our main route into the strange world of the big animals in the deep oceans… He was very much the hands-on scientist, and retained immense enthusiasm for the animals he studied until his death.” Unfailingly interested and interesting, he was still working the day he died, from a heart attack.

Malcolm Roy Clarke, marine biologist: born Birmingham 24 October 1930; Senior Principal Scientific Officer, Marine Biological Association 1978–87; married 1958 Dorothy Clara Knight (three sons, one daughter); died Pico, the Azores 10 May 2013

Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Technical Project Manager - Software and Infrastructure - Government Experience

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Central Lon...

Teaching Assistant in secondary school Manchester

£11280 - £14400 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Teaching a...

Primary teaching roles in Ipswich

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education re...

Science teachers needed in Norwich

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Science teachers requ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits