Perched on a rocky outpost at Cape D’Aguilar, on the south side of Hong Kong Island, is the skeleton of a juvenile male fin whale 6.4 metres (21ft) long, but it’s seen better days. Erected in 1991, the skeleton has felt nature’s full force, never more so than in September 2018 when Typhoon Mangkhut battered the city with wind gusts of up to 232km/h. “Mangkhut gave the skeleton a beating, and damaged some of the bones when the waves came crashing over these rocks,” says Philip Thompson, pointing to jagged rock formations that loom large behind the skeleton. “He suffered cracked ribs, a dislodged lower right jawbone and the left hip bone was blown away.” Thompson, a University of Hong Kong (HKU) research assistant in the division of ecology and biodiversity and at the Swire Institute of Marine Science (Swims), is something of a steward of the skeleton, which stands next to a Swims research facility. He is leading Swims’ “Restoring Hong Kong’s Whale” campaign, which focuses on raising funds to repair the skeleton and support educational and outreach activities. Thompson says the original bones will be preserved in a new Swims biodiversity centre on the site, while new ones – designed to withstand typhoons, salt spray and Hong Kong’s intense summers – are 3D-printed by a Hong Kong company, Addify. If nothing done, extinction ‘most likely outcome’ for white dolphins A QR code on a cement slab at the base of the skeleton provides details of how people can donate to the restoration project. “Donors can also vote for their favourite name for this baby whale,” Thompson says. The campaign is part of recent renovations at the Swims facility which, as well as the biodiversity centre, include a new molecular laboratory and indoor and outdoor saltwater aquariums. It has the largest collection of marine specimens in Hong Kong. On a sunny afternoon in late July, workers are busy putting the finishing touches to the facility before its July 28 opening. Swims director Professor Gray Williams walks guests through rooms and laboratories whose huge windows offer sweeping views of hillsides and the South China Sea. The road to the reopening has been long and bumpy “thanks to the protests [in 2019, Hong Kong was rocked by months of often violent street protests sparked by planned changes to extradition law] and Covid-19 – and lots of rain”, says Williams. “But it’s very exciting to see this facility come together so we can host more researchers from around the world,” he adds. The whale skeleton has become an important symbol of marine conservation, Williams says. “He represents our responsibility to conserve and protect the marine environment. The whales’ bones are now programmed into our system, so if we need to replace one, we can 3D print it.” Hong Kong restores abandoned farmland to attract diverse bird species As for the whale’s tale, Thompson says he found little online until he stumbled on an article in the HKU in-house magazine Spectrum that said the starving baby whale was first spotted floating amid debris near the Ming Shan Wharf in Victoria Harbour on April 12, 1955. Titled “Hong Kong’s Whale”, the opening line reads: “For a whale to turn up in Hong Kong harbour is almost as improbable as for a panda to be found on The Peak.” “A calf that young should still be swimming close to its mother, on its migratory path,” Thompson says, adding that when found, the whale was lethargic and so most likely ill – one reason why it separated from its mother. The whale was shot in the head by police, the most humane outcome, he says. As its carcass was being moved out to sea by marine police, fate intervened when they were met by HKU research boat the RV Alister Hardy, which took the whale’s body to Aberdeen on the south side of Hong Kong Island. The following day, and racing against the clock – think rotting flesh, the heat of spring and a rising tide – men cut up the whale. Its meat – all 2¼ tonnes of it – was put into cold storage so it could be fed to refugees from China; from the 1950s to the 70s, Hong Kong was a haven for people fleeing the aftermath of the Chinese civil war, the famine triggered by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. As many as 1,000 people turned up to watch the whale being carved up. Thompson says not everyone was happy about the whale’s fate, with some superstitious fisherman worried the “ghost fish” would bring bad luck. In an attempt to placate angry spirits, the fishermen collected money and made an eight-metre paper whale that was burned and released in Junk Bay on the southeast coast of the city’s New Territories. Fast forward to today, and Williams says it is time to lay another ghost to rest – that of Miss Willy, as the skeleton has been wrongly called on travel and leisure websites and in a number of social media posts. “Miss Willy was a female orca whale who performed at Ocean Park and died in 1997,” says Williams, referring to a Hong Kong theme park. “Fake stories that her skeleton is the one at Cape D’Aguilar have been circulating for long enough. It’s time to set the record straight.” For more details visit Restoring Hong Kong’s Whale campaign .