Reflections by award-winning maritime historian Joan Druett, author of many books about the sea
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Thursday, August 24, 2023
The Winter Newsletter from the Butler Point Whaling Museum, New Zealand
Butler Point Whaling Museum, 1840s Historic House and Gardens
"Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare’s? But if his eyes were broad as the lens of Herschel’s great telescope; and his ears capacious as the porches of cathedrals; would that make him any longer of sight, or sharper of hearing? Not at all.- Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it." (Herman Melville, Moby Dick 1851)
Takurua Kōrero Newsletter: Winter 2023
Kia ora koutou
Welcome to our Winter 2023 newsletter
The reappearance of the Matariki star cluster over the horizon last month is a welcome sign that light, warmth and growth will soon be returning. In pre-colonial times kites, or manu tukutuku, would have fluttered in the skies at this time to mark Matariki.
We think spectacular starry nights are a gift in Doubtless Bay, and in the photo you can see that some of them fell into the water at Butler Point!
In the Garden the normally well-behaved black cows that graze our paddocks must have had a rush of Spring warmth to their heads last week. Under the cover of darkness they enthusiastically trampled a fence and frolicked their way through every inch of the gardens. We found them the next morning smugly surveying the carnage. After an heroic emergency rescue effort, hoof-marks were filled in and torn plants tidied up just in time for a visiting garden group.
Book of the Season Our dedicated newsletter production team has just finished Tom Mustill’s book how to speak whale. It is a thrilling investigation into whale science, and reading it has enabled us to update our information; for example how whales hear with their jaws, how spermaceti controls the production of sound, and how whales speak baby talk with their young. Here is a small selection of what we have learnt.
Whales are our distant cousins
Well, very distant cousins. We shared a common ancestor with whales, apes and elephants until 145 million years ago when there was a fork in the evolutionary road. Then around 50 million years ago some mammals, the ancestors of all cetaceans, moved back into the water. They lost most of their hair, insulated themselves with blubber, and their hands and feet turned into paddles.
An x-ray of a humpback whale pectoral fin, the largest and most powerful arm in the history of life on our planet, looks much like a giant version of our own arm. Inside every whale and dolphin flipper is a limb that first evolved to walk on land. The baby pilot whale skeleton in our museum has a bony hand inside its fin that looks uncannily human.
Cetacean senses have evolved differently to our land-based human ones. Sound is everything in their watery world where it travels four times faster than in air.
Whales listen through fatty structures in their jawbones as life underwater has smoothed off their external ears. Their brain translates the sound waves picked up by the jaw into a three dimensional picture of the object ahead.
Sperm whales have a set of phonic lips under their blowhole which vibrate against each other to create the loudest sound in all creation: up to 230 decibels, louder than a jet engine and heard across entire oceans! The sound waves created by these lips hit the lower part of the whale’s head, where spermaceti oil acting like a giant lens focuses the vibrations and channels the noise out into the water as an astonishingly powerful click used to scan their world.
An underwater cameraman tells the story of being scanned by a large female dolphin fascinated by the clicking sound his old camera made. She slowly approached him, put her snout against his scuba mask, and buzzed him with sonar for several minutes. He remembers it as a very pleasant sensation, like a shaken can of soda fizzing in his head, yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being interrogated by a seriously large intelligence.
As well as echolocation clicks, cetaceans also produce buzzes, trumpets, creaks and codas, which are an unchanging series of signature clicks like a name they use to identify themselves and each other. Other patterns of clicks and gaps, like Morse code, seem to carry information vital for sustaining their cooperative lives together.
While Baleen whales are generally loners, toothed whales live in pods: close knit family groups of 15 to 20 made up of mostly females and their young. Mother and baby whales talk in baby babble and whisper to each other when predators are nearby. When mothers go hunting they leave their young in nurseries where other mothers nurse and protect them. There is evidence that sperm whales even provide food for adult whales that are less able to hunt. Humpback whales have even been known to rescue other species of animals from killer whales.
Cetaceans are not fish but mammals and cannot breathe underwater. However, whales can go without breathing because they are able to use their flesh as a giant scuba tank. Their muscles contain an enormous concentration of myoglobin proteins that trap oxygen, like haemoglobin in human blood cells. The whale slowly releases oxygen from its muscles over the course of a dive, sustaining it for over an hour. The myoglobin gives their flesh its dark red, almost black colour.
Do whales have conscious thought? Tom Mustill puts the question to scientists. It is very possible. Whales are extremely intelligent with impressive neural systems containing components previously thought to exist solely in humans.
After all the rain the garden is on steroids; bigger, bolder, greener, lusher than ever before, even the freesia buds are enormous. The pond is full and the frogs are happy.
Artiste in Residence Professor Vincent Chevillon, from Strasbourg, France, has been in New Zealand travelling our coastlines for seven months tracking whale stranding sites, meeting people, discovering treasures and hearing stories about the enduring legacies of whales. We were privileged to have Vincent stay with us while he explored the Far North.
The day he departed, we had a visit from a pod of orcas cruising along in front of the Museum....perhaps they had come to say au revoir?
Noho ora mai
Acknowledgements / References
Mustill, Tom. (2022). how to speak whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication. William Collins London
Dixon, Dougal. (2018). When the Whales Walked. Australian Geographic.
Hakaraia, Libby. (2008). Matariki: The Maori New Year. Penguin