Monday, May 3, 2010

More sea mammals

My first experience of cetaceans – that’s whales and dolphins – was a dolphin skull that my father brought home from Farewell Spit. I was intrigued. I already had an interest in skulls and so could identify the different bones that made up the skull – parietal, nasal etc.

My second encounter was on Hokio Beach south of Palmerston North where a friend and I were doing a beach walk, recording the dead seabirds washed ashore. This would have been back in 1968. In the distance we saw a grey shape, smoother than the logs which littered the beach and contrasting with the black sand. It was a Rissos dolphin, freshly dead and not too unhappy about it judging from his little smile.
This was only the second Rissos known from New Zealand – the first was Pelorus Jack who had accompanied ships through French Pass. We took his head but had to leave behind one of the glass floats we were carrying. The head sat in fork of a macrocarpa for a couple of years, then we cleaned up the skull and shipped it to the Dominion Museum in Wellington.

Decayed Cuvier's whale

 I’ve had a bit of a fascination with cetaceans ever since and I’ve salvaged sixteen different species from around New Zealand with skulls and teeth ending up in several museums. I’ve got used to the characteristic smell and I have eaten my lunch sitting on a whale, although because of penetrating quality of whale oil, you can smell whale for the next week until it works its way out of your hands. The bones are porous and saturated in oil; that’s what gives whales their buoyancy. Putting them in the compost heap for a year is the best way to degrease them.

My most recent acquisition is a fossil skull dredged from the Chatham Rise. About 50 of these are known, possibly all the same species and perhaps dating from the same time several million years ago. The skull is petrified – remarkably hard and heavy. It would have been buried in seafloor sediment which became limestone, then thrust above sealevel by land movements, eroded out of the limestone then swamped again to sit on the seabed a second time.

It’s always better to see a live whale or dolphin than a dead one. I helped in the rescue of a pod of Pilot whales on Victory Beach on Otago Peninsula in 1982. Half of the 60 were saved and we felt good about that. I’ve been whale watching at Kaikoura. It’s a great experience, and tourism is a better use of whales than killing them.

Times have changed. 100 years ago a pod of Pilot whales in shallow water meant everyone was busy trying to herd them ashore where they could be processed. In 1909 320 were herded ashore at Mason Bay. The lucky fishermen set up a tryworks and boiled up the whales getting 60 barrels of oil for their trouble. The oil was a lubricant and its high fluidity and absence of mineral impurities meant it was the choice for watches and sewing machines.

I’m against whaling but I’m all for utilising dead whales for whatever they can provide – meat, oil and bone. We have gone too far the other way in how we treat a dead carcasse on the beach. Why not salvage what nature provides? Today the sound of the ironware being sharpened has been replaced with the sound of wailing, blessings, prayers… ridiculous.