One of two fully-articulated sperm whale skeletons featured at the Ontario Science Centre’s Whales / Tohorā exhibition.
The front part of a sperm whale’s head accounts for nearly a third of its length, and contains no eyes, no ears, no brain, and almost no bone. Which raises the question: what the heck is it for?
Ishmael in Moby Dick thinks the fibrous, blubbery wad could act as a battering ram. But the true nature of the sperm’s head, as Torontoist learned visiting the Ontario Science Centre’s Whales / Tohorā exhibition, is even weirder.
Essentially, as this video from the exhibit shows, it’s a massive biological sonar gun for tracking deepsea prey. A pair of muscles near the tip of the head contracts to produce a high frequency click. This sound amplifies as it passes through a reservoir of oily goo called spermaceti, then ricochets off the front of the skull into the surrounding water. Based on the nature and timing of the echo, sperm whales can tell what types of fish are in their vicinity. They can pursue and devour prey, all without the aid of eyesight, which is useless at the depths they feed.
This is just one of the many insights into whale science that can be be gained from a visit to Whales / Tohorā, a travelling showcase of cetacean curios hailing from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa‘s renowned marine mammals collection. The exhibit, which runs until March 20, is an eclectic look into the biology, history, and myths that make these ocean monsters so friggin’ cool.
It’s a refreshing change of pace for the museum, which has been targeting the fantasy fanboy demographic pretty heavily of late. Hot off the heels of attractions like Harry Potter: The Exhibition and Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids, it’s nice to see an exhibit that, well, actually has to do with science.
Life-size replica of a blue whale heart, rendered with anatomically accurate “No Climbing” sign.
To be sure, Whales / Tohorā is certainly geared towards kids—not the metaphorical, homunculus-child inside us all, but actual, potato chip bag-scrunching, yelling-loudly-for-no-apparent-reason kids. Touch-screen games, animations, and climbable displays are clearly designed to draw in the young ‘uns, and they appeared to be doing their job. We were definitely the only non-children-accompanying adults there, which can get a little silly at times.
Still, if you don’t mind tripping over the occasional stroller, there’s plenty of cool science to go around. In addition to boasting two giant sperm whale skeletons, the exhibit also has an impressive display of fossilized whale remains, which depict the beast’s gradual metamorphosis from shallow-shore fisher to deep-sea diver extraordinaire.
Contrary to what you’ll find written in Genesis, the great leviathan is not the ocean’s oldest creature. As it turns out, he’s a relative newcomer to the marine biome. The modern day whale traces its ancestry back to the pakicetus, a small, wolf-like critter that fished the shallow seas near modern day Pakistan some fifty million years ago. It seems that environmental shifts forced this animal to venture further offshore to locate its prey. Its front paws morphed into fins, and its tail into a pair of propulsive flukes. Gradually, the creature evolved to become more and more seaworthy, until it could afford to set off from land permanently.
Our guide, David Sugarman, explained that because whales are water dwelling, they are not bound by the same gravitational drag that keeps most land creatures relatively compact. “When you’re supported like that,” he says, “you can get big…or you can get gudgy like jellyfish.”
“The blue whale is the biggest animal that ever lived,” says Sugarman, bigger both in length and mass than such superlative beasts as the gigantosaurus and the supersaurus. A life-size replica of its heart, on display at the exhibition, is large enough for several children to climb inside.
In the interest of cool whale trivia, our guide also informs us that “the blue whale makes the loudest sounds in nature”—roughly thirty-two times louder than a jet engine. These low frequency blasts are detectable hundreds, and sometimes thousands of kilometers away.
Sugarman, it should be mentioned, is the Ontario Science Centre’s senior scientist. With tousled sandy hair and overstuffed binder full of journal abstracts and articles, he broadcasts a goofy excitement about science that’s easy to get caught up in. He is also, unfortunately, not a regular fixture of the exhibit, but was brought in by the museum’s PR team to personally guide us around—he isn’t a routine presence.
Very early whale ancestor. Note the hind legs, and characteristically evil appearance.
Although staff members, decked in white coats, did roam about answering questions, we were disappointed to discover there were no regularly scheduled guided tours. A skilled museum guide can weave a coherent story out of seemingly disparate artifacts and displays. Without one, it’s all too easy too get bogged down in detail and miss the big ideas entirely. This is especially true in a broadly conceived exhibition like Whales / Tohorā, which merges straight-up science with stories and cultural artifacts from New Zealand’s indigenous Maori peoples.
The ethnographic arm of the exhibit is centred around an impressive collection of aboriginal whalebone pendants and weaponry. Since the Maori don’t actually hunt whales, the majority of this ivory comes to them through stranded carcasses, making it an exceedingly rare commodity. A nearby section explores the importance of whales (and whale riders) in aboriginal mythology.
All told, there’s more than enough stuff here to keep you busy for at least a couple of hours. Other highlights include a section on the mystery of mass whale strandings, an odd collection of beaked whale skulls, ambergris, and some large specimens of baleen (the hairy teeth found in humpback and blue whales).
It doesn’t really warrant the $20 price of admission by itself, but if you’ve been looking for an excuse to spend a day at the Science Centre, this just may be it. So long as you don’t mind dodging toddlers and poking around on your own, there’s a wealth of great artifacts, and plenty of cool science on display here.
Whales / Tohorā runs at the Ontario Science Centre until March 20, 2011. The Science Centre is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission is $20 for adults and $16 for students.
Photos by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.
In this post we originally refered to a previous Science Centre exhibit as “Magical Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids.” The exhibit’s correct name is “Mythic Creatures.”