Fall 2009

Sperm whale, courtesy of Brandon Cole. Diver,
courtesy of Romeo/V&W, courtesy of SeaPics.com. 
© Brandon Cole, Romeo/V&W, SeaPics.com

The Whales' Tale

Whale watching in Pittsburgh? Coming this October, Carnegie Museum of Natural History offers the next best thing: a traveling exhibition exploring the natural wonder of whales and  their complicated and sometimes mysterious relationship with humans.

By John Altdorfer


Somewhere between the time Jonah ended up as Biblical fish food and an obsessed Ahab chased his Great White nemesis across the pages of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a Polynesian tribal leader named Paikea jumped on the back of a whale known as Tohorā to escape a death plot hatched by his murderous brother. With a group of faithful followers—the Mäori—paddling a great fleet of canoes behind him, Paikea traversed the South Pacific along whale migratory routes to find refuge in the place the Mäori christened Aotearoa, or modern day New Zealand.

This fall, nearly 1,000 years later, a traveling exhibition that explores the evolution of the world’s largest mammal and its complex and ever-changing relationship with people will find safe harbor at Carnegie Museum of Natural History beginning October 31.

A Real Whale of a Tale

Developed by Anton van Helden, collection manager of marine mammals at Te Papa, New Zealand’s National Museum, Whales|Tohorā lends scientific discovery with first-person narratives in an interactive, theatrical presentation that immerses visitors in the deep sea world of whales and whets their fascination about the largest creatures ever to roam the planet.  

From his earliest vision of this exhibition as a rudimentary small-scale show traveling from one New Zealand school to another on a flatbed truck to its present form as a globetrotting showcase, van Helden has propelled Whales|Tohorā forward with a sometimes quixotic vision and determination.

“I wanted to obtain an intact skeleton of a male sperm whale for display at the museum. It had been my goal since I started studying whales for the museum 20 years ago,” van Helden explains. “It’s an animal readily seen off our coasts and one that would engage people in the stories of whales around New Zealand’s coast and the South Pacific. But I didn’t have much success until 2003, when a 58.4-foot-long male sperm whale was part of a mass stranding off Auckland’s coast. After negotiating with the local Mäori tribe for the skeleton, their gift of that whale became the genesis of the current exhibit.

“There are 42 species, and numerous fossil whales known from New Zealand’s waters, and this exhibition gives us an opportunity to share some of this diversity and our complex and varied relationships to them, with the rest of the world.”

Today, Whales|Tohorā is making a mighty big splash with audiences around the world. Highlights include real, full-scale skeletons, and realistic models suspended from ceilings, stunning underwater film footage of whales in their environment, a life-size (and kid-climbable) model of a golf-cart-sized whale heart, interactive computer stations that introduce whale sounds and songs, and a fascinating film about whale strandings.

Testing the Waters

About 50 million years ago, a curious land mammal decided to take a dip in a nearby stream or lake. Most likely, the beast waded into water to find something to eat, for shelter, or to cool off. What it discovered was an offshore feeding bonanza. As a result, it and others returned to the water again and again to fill their bellies.

“Whales are one of the best examples of the several mammal groups that gradually returned to life in the water,” says Zhe-Xi Luo, curator of vertebrate paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “Because their fossil record is so good, we can now trace how the whale went from a land-bound animal to semi-aquatic to fully ocean-going.”

The earliest whales relied on their heavy leg bones and strong feet to hold them in place as they fed at the bottom of riverbeds, says Luo. Though the most primitive whales initially straddled those two environments, the more advanced whales became fully aquatic and swam longer distances. Eventually, as their front feet evolved into flippers and their back paws disappeared, they began to navigate the oceans. At the same time, their tails gradually transformed into powerful paddles to help them dive deeper and deeper to capture prey far below the water’s surface, completing their transformation from land-based creatures to animals completely at home living in the world’s saltwater oceans and seas.

Whales can’t breathe under water; no mammal can. But some whales, thanks to their enormous lung capacity, can hold their breath for up to two hours. To empty their lungs at the end of a dive, whales blast pent-up carbon dioxide through the blowholes on the top of their heads, sending great plumes of water as high as 20 feet into the air.

“We know so much more about whales today than even 30 years ago,” says Luo. “Researchers used to think that whales were very different from mammals that live on land. Now, we realize that if you go back far enough in geological time, there are many similarities between the two groups to link whales to a land ancestor.”

Whale People

In one particular instance, the relationship between whales and mammals is especially deep and strong.

Near the end of the popular movie Whale Rider, a young Mäori girl destined to lead her tribe climbs atop a dying stranded whale to gently coax and guide it back to safety in the ocean. As they glide far from shore, their spirits become one.

The Mäori consider the whale a part of their culture. © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

While this kind of mythical whale riding isn’t recommended for most people, a profound natural connection exists between these sea mammals and human beings, especially the Mäori.

“The whale is the carrier of our culture,” says Derek Lardelli, a Mäori ta moko—or skin-marking—artist who traveled with the Whales|Tohorā exhibition last year to the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., during its first run in the United States. “If you follow the migratory patterns of the whale from the warmer waters of Hawaii to the shores of New Zealand, you’ll find the path that my ancestors traveled to get here,” says Lardelli, who also teaches classical Mäori literature.

The exhibition focuses on that relationship between the whale and the Mäori
people. Once in their new homeland, the Mäori mainly searched for food in New Zealand’s lush forests instead of hunting whales, either out of respect or because of the whale’s overwhelming size. However, the Mäori did take advantage of stranded whales as a food source, considering such events as gifts from the gods. Then, another group of seafaring people “discovered” New Zealand, and everything changed.

With the coming of Western colonizers in search of riches, the Mäori joined whaling ship crews and earned the respect of their European bosses as hard-working, expert  seamen and hunters. As the result of such close working relationships, the Mäori and non-natives also formed personal connections. Intercultural marriages were common, which helped to create a new culture unique to New Zealand.

Though that blending of different civilizations helped ease tensions between the nation’s indigenous people and Westerners, it also quickly eroded the traditional Mäori culture and the population itself.

“In some cases, the marriage between native and non-native cultures has been successful,” says Lardelli. “In other instances, the results haven’t been so good. At the turn of the last century, the Mäori were considered a dying race. But those trends have been reversed, and now we are once again well-earthed in our traditional culture, including the importance of the whale in the lives of all the people of New Zealand.”

As Whales|Tohorā highlights, the animal’s place in the lives of New Zealanders has changed remarkably since the first Westerners arrived. As a nation that once thrived on whale hunting, New Zealand now is a leader in the conservation and protection of whales, which were once killed worldwide by the hundreds of thousands annually to the point of near extinction.

A stranded long-finned pilot whale at Karikari Beach, New Zealand, in 1997. © Dr Ingrid Visser, Orca Research Trust

“In the late-1960s and ’70s, the humpback whale became a symbol for conservation,” says curator van Helden. “Suddenly, whales became something we recognize as social creatures. Because of their apparent benevolent relationship with us, and because they don’t seek to hurt us, they have become a symbol of what we’re doing to harm the planet.”

Despite increased awareness of the whale’s precarious place in our world, a handful of countries continue to hunt them, often in defiance of widely accepted practices and regulations designed to protect all species of whales around the world. Naturally, van Helden is among the staunchest of whale advocates. 

“We’re all responsible for these extraordinary creatures that inspire and amaze everyone, from small children to adults,” he says. “Even after so many recent discoveries, we still know so very little about whales. And we do so much that harms them without realizing it. As human beings, we have the responsibility to learn even more about them and do everything possible to protect them and the environment we share with them.”

Making a Splash

To enter the sprawling 8,000-square-foot Whales|Tohorā experience, visitors must pass under a stylized reproduction of a Mäori wharenui, or meeting house, topped off with a carved figure of Paikea riding a whale. The first of its four sections, Whale People, includes ancient and contemporary whalebone jewelry and weapons made by indigenous craftsmen, as well as a theater shaped like the head of a great white whale—similar to the model used in the 2004 movie Whale Rider—to help visitors appreciate the significance of other whale riding legends. Perhaps most impressively, it inspects the evolution of New Zealand as a whaling nation to a country in the vanguard of safeguarding these magnificent mammals wherever they may live.

“We know how beautiful and fluid they are in the ocean, but are so helpless when they’re on land,” says Anton van Helden, the exhibition’s curator. “There are many conflicting emotional, scientific, and cultural issues around any stranding. We try to weave stories in the exhibit that address those concerns and help people understand what they should or shouldn’t do with a stranded whale.”

In the exhibition’s Whale Lab, a pair of skeletons reveals the sperm whale’s overwhelming size and complexity, from the teeth in its jaws to the hand-like bone structures of its flippers. Other replicas chart the 20-million-year evolutionary journey, from the whale’s days of roaming the  surface of the planet, to its earliest stages of foraging for food on the bottom of freshwater streams and lakes, to its eventual adaptation to a full aquatic life in saltwater oceans and seas. And kids can really get into the experience by crawling through the true-to-size replica of a blue whale’s heart.

An interactive learning station allows visitors to join a sperm whale, the largest toothed whale, on a search and destroy mission as it swiftly and gracefully dives thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface to capture a giant squid. Another recreates the many squeaks, clicks, whistles, buzzes, and songs that whales employ to track prey, stay on course during migrations, and communicate with each other. Visitors even get a glimpse inside a whale’s body, including its internal organs and skeletal structure.

“It’s a rich experience for visitors,” says van Helden. “It gives them the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of whales and their diversity. It helps visitors see how whales evolved from land-based animals to marine mammals. And it helps everyone understand the relationship between whales and the people of the South Pacific and around the world.”

Also in this issue:

Poster Boy  ·  Insect Appellant  ·  Destination Pittsburgh  ·  Presidentís Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Now Showing  ·  Face Time: Jason Busch  ·  About Town: The Art of Change  ·  Field Trip: Virtual Field Trip  ·  Science & Nature: Robots Rule  ·  Artistic License: Word Play  ·  The Big Picture