Monday, December 17, 2007


Today is December 18 in New Zealand -- it's still yesterday in Michigan. It's our last day here, and we spent several hours in Te Papa, the national museum. We especially liked a wonderful exhibit on whales. The museum includes material on natural history, the history of both Maori and English settlement of the land, and on the art and culture of Maori people, Europeans, and the people of Oceania. The whale exhibit included materials on all of these subjects.

The natural history part of the whale exhibit displayed whale skeletons and fossils. Whale family trees explained relationships among the large number of families and species of whales -- large and small. Some whales eat small things by sifting the ocean through their baleen, and some gulp deep-water fish and squids, eating them whole. Research into whale behavior, whale songs, and whale capabilities (such as diving deep) are ongoing, and scientists have much to learn, it appears. Because New Zealand presents a long coastline and is alone in the uninterrupted ocean, many many whales have always beached here -- currently, this provides a large research opportunity. When beached whales die, scientists can study them.

The Maori people have legends about the whale rider, Paikea. Whales did his bidding. He was the first of his people to arrive in New Zealand because he could ride a whale, while the others had only canoes, says the story. While Maori people did not hunt whales, they used the beached whales for food. Great carvers, they made beautiful artifacts from whalebone and teeth. Now, the Maori are involved in efforts to rescue beached whales which still have a chance to return to the ocean. When the whales die, the Maori people give the whale a name before the scientists take it away; some of the whale teeth and bones also go to modern Maori carvers. Non-Maori New Zealanders also participate in efforts to rescue beached whales.

After initial contact between Europeans and Maori by Abel Tasman and Captain Cook, the main European presence for quite a while was the whalers -- ships from Europe and New England. This contact was also documented in the exhibit. Sailors sometimes came onshore for a while -- or totally deserted ship and made a life with the Maori or the few European agricultural settlements. Some Maori people today can trace their family back to sailors who intermarried into the local population.

New Zealand was thus a whaling country for over a century. Now they are totally committed to saving whales and opposing whaling. They are against hunting or harming other whale species such as dolphins. They promote the whale-watching and dolphin-watching offerings in Kaikoura, where we visited a few days ago.

No photos were allowed in the exhibit.

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