Whales and Maori culture on display

Maori elders from New Zealand, Aboriginal Canadians and friends gathered last week to unveil the Ontario Science Centre’s newest exhibit, Whales|Tohora.

In keeping with their tradition, the Maori elders held a special ceremony at dawn to observe the symbolic transfer of guardianship of the whales, brought from their native New Zealand to Canada.

Bringing the whales over has been a long time coming, according to Michelle Hippolite. Transporting the fossils from their home in New Zealand’s Te Papa Tongarewa museum was no easy feat.

“Thanks to tribal groups looking over areas where these whales were (once) stranded, we were able to bring these artefacts here,” Hippolite said.

She discussed the role these migratory giants of the sea played in her Maori culture. Though New Zealanders now view conservation efforts as their primary goal, the whales were once hunted down as a means of survival.

“In this exhibition we provide our perspectives on (that) journey,” Hippolite said. “It’s a very unique opportunity to share a very unique story from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere, showing how culture, science and stories of people can come together.”

Visitors can get up close to these colossal marine mammals with the help of interactive audiovisual exhibits such as exploring a “whale lab;” learning about whale riders, marine biologists and whaling families; and walking right up to a full-scale sperm whale fossil. Kids can also climb into a life-sized model of a blue whale heart.

“You can really feel the cultural ties with this exhibit,” Grade 12 student Drew McNeil said. “It’s a lot more interesting that way, so it’s not just reading about bones and fossils.”

“To see the full size of the whale is just unbelievable,” Leaside resident Stuart Mulcahy added. As an expatriate New Zealander, Mulcahy said he hopes that visitors gain an appreciation of the Pacific island home he calls “a special place.”

“(The whale) is important to the Maori people…and the Maori are an important part of New Zealand culture,” he said.

The Whales – Tohora exhibit is on display until Mar. 20, 2011. Entrance is free with admission into the Ontario Science Centre.