The smell hits you first: a nose-wrinkling, fishy stench, cut by the sharp reek of formaldehyde.

Then your eyes adjust to the dim fluorescent light, and the sight takes your breath away.

The National Museum of Natural History's whale warehouse, a football field-sized facility in Suitland, Md., resembles a graveyard for giants. There are backbones as long as tennis courts, massive skulls, rib cages that could fit an entire school bus inside. There are fossil remains dating back 40 million years, to a time when whale ancestors, which lived on land, were just beginning their transition to creatures of the sea. A 24-foot pale gray jawbone at the center of the facility, taken from a blue whale slain by whalers 77 years ago, is the largest single skeletal element in any museum collection on Earth.

“There are certainly no other museums that have this,” said NMNH fossil marine mammal curator Nick Pyenson, who oversees the collection. He estimates that the warehouse includes the remains of more than 10,000 individual animals, representing every living species of whale, most extinct ones, and some that haven't even been named yet. Just this year, Pyenson and his colleagues discovered a new type of extinct river dolphin among the fossil skeletons sitting on the warehouse shelves.

“Almost any kind of question you have,” he boasted, “there's something in the collection that can help answer it.”

But these bones have a brutal past. Many of them were collected during whaling's worst years: An estimated 3 million whales were killed between 1900 and 1999, hunted for oil to fuel lamps and grease machinery. Even more died — and still do — after being struck by ships or becoming entangled in nets. Pyenson can point out scars on warehouse skeletons where the animals were savaged by harpoons or ships' bows. The largest bones, like the blue whale jaw, are a reminder of what's been lost; today's whales will probably never get so big, since the largest creatures were hunted out of the gene pool.

“It's largely a collection that cannot be made again,” Pyenson said. “The circumstances in which these specimens were collected, the kinds of species that were collected . . . we will not find more of them.”

Take, for example, the skull of a southern right whale that arrived in the museum's collections in 1938 by way of the factory ship Ulysses. Even then, right whales were a protected species (they'd been hunted to near-extinction over the course of the previous century) but a gunner harpooned it accidentally, unable to distinguish the species in a thick Antarctic fog. After slaughtering 3,665 whales in less than five months, the Ulysses crew pulled their 3,666th on board.

At the start of the 20th century, Antarctic whaling was revolutionized by cannon-fired harpoons and diesel engines. Whalers were finally able to bag the big baleen whales at the bottom of the world: fin, sei, humpbacks and blues. Factory ships like the Ulysses had all the facilities needed to process whale oil on board; they were able to hunt for months at a time. The scramble to the Southern Ocean turned what Pyenson calls “one of the last great bastions of biological abundance” into a killing field.

On land, scientists and activists, including prominent Smithsonian scientist Remington Kellogg, fretted about the fate of these massive animals. Kellogg had joined NMNH (then called the U.S. National Museum) in 1928, planning to study fossil whales, much like Pyenson does today. But reports about the mass killing of whales alarmed him, and by 1937, he'd become a leading advocate for whale conservation and the top U.S. delegate to international conservation meetings.

He and his colleagues struggled to enact protections for whales. For one thing, the public didn't know or care much about the animals; most people still saw them as menacing monsters of the deep. For another, scientific knowledge of the creatures was sparse, and many whale scientists (including those at the Smithsonian) relied on whaling ships for specimens. New York Aquarium Director Charles Haskins Townsend quit Kellogg's conservation group to work directly with whaling companies, feeling it was better to “continue on good terms” to get the access and the data he needed.

Whaling advocates used scientists' uncertainty to their advantage: The oceans were so vast and unknowable, some argued, that there must be countless whales hiding in their depths. To get restrictions enacted, Kellogg had to prove that whales lived along specific migration routes — and that the whaling industry had positioned itself right on top of them.

“Kellogg really needed data on numbers, sizes, habits and distribution,” said P.J. Capelotti, an anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University. “And boy did he ever luck out when he met Quentin Walsh.”

Walsh was a young U.S. Coast Guard officer who had been assigned to the Ulysses in accordance with a 1937 international treaty to regulate whaling. His job was to document the factory ship's catch and ensure that it abided by the new laws. But after talking with Kellogg, Walsh opted to take his assignment a step further — he meticulously recorded everything that happened over the course of his 153 days at sea. The resulting report, which went unpublished until Capelotti edited it in 2010, is arguably the most detailed account of 20th century whaling.

“The areas over which these expeditions moved were devastated by every method and ingenuity that modern scientists could invent and install for the purpose of killing the animals rapidly and hastening the processing systems of the carcass to derive oil,” Walsh wrote about the voyage.

The report is difficult to read. Walsh describes how big whales were hunted by the “come up and out” method, in which smaller “killer boats” equipped with guns chased down a whale as it surfaced to breathe, forcing the animal back under. The frightened creature would start to swim faster — and lose its breath even more quickly. Eventually, the winded and exhausted whale would slow down enough for a killer boat to get within firing range.

“The whales had no chance,” Walsh said. “They are smothered into exhaustion and then killed.”

When the Ulysses crew harpooned the right whale in February 1938, they might have simply slaughtered the whale and claimed it was a different species. But Walsh forced them to preserve the specimen, knowing that Kellogg would want it. Right whales were so rare at that point (and still are) that any specimen collected in the wild would be profoundly important to the study of the species.

That whale's skull still sits in the NMNH collection today, where it's been used for research as recently as 2008.

“All of us are deeply appreciative of the interest shown by Lieut. Walsh and especially for this important material,” Kellogg wrote in a 1938 letter to Walsh's commanding officer, thanking him for the gift.

Even more valuable to Kellogg was the data Walsh collected, which the Smithsonian curator used to argue that the whale population was clearly being depleted. Even though the Antarctic whaling ship fleet had grown, catches were shrinking. “They provided the scientific basis for showing that if you continued to harvest undersized whales, there would be no more whales left in the ocean,” Capelotti said. 

Eight years later, that research helped lead to the creation of the International Whaling Commission. For almost two decades, Kellogg was the U.S. delegate to the commission, and he served for several years as chair. Yet the commission had conflicting tasks: to “provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks” but also “make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.” The IWC instituted quotas in an attempt to satisfy both parties, but those were largely toothless. In the 18 years during which Kellogg served on the commission, roughly 1 million whales were killed.

Back at the museum, Kellogg oversaw the installation of a 94-foot blue whale model, which reigned over the Hall of Life in the Seas from 1963 to 2000.

“There's a bit of dark irony, I think, with Kellogg and his legacy,” Pyenson said. “Here is arguably the dean of whale biology in the United States, unveiling a blue whale model in the National Museum as a way to communicate what we know about these amazing organisms, while at the same time he was involved with this regulatory body that was failing to actually save this population that was flirting with extinction.”

“It's something I think about on a daily basis because I interact with the specimens not only from the whaling industry but also [Kellogg's] fossil collections,” he continued.

Kellogg died in 1969. Thirteen years later, the IWC voted for a moratorium on international whaling, although a few nations still hunt whales. Today, far more whales die from other causes, such as net entanglements and ship strikes, and they are further at risk from noise pollution, toxic algae blooms, ocean acidification and climate change.

Like his predecessor, Pyenson is constantly juggling his priorities as scientist, conservationist and curator. He's trained as a paleontologist, and primarily interested in answering questions about the evolution of whales and their impact on ecosystems. To do that, he must understand how modern whales behave, so he increasingly finds himself in the role of advocate. At the same time, he is figuring out how to manage the precious bones in the whale warehouse.

“There are some parts of this collection where we have some of the few specimens that are around in the world, and those are the only specimens we'll ever get because that species is extinct,” Pyenson said.

Seen in that light, the warehouse can feel like a tomb. But Pyenson prefers to think of it as a monument. If a population does vanish, he said, museum collections will remain as “the biological record for that species on the planet.”

Tales from the Vault: Science museums are home to vast research collections, most of which the public never gets to see — until now. Once a month, Speaking of Science will go behind the scenes at our favorite museums to introduce readers to the fascinating objects and people we find there. Read past installments here.