Delve deep into Whales Tohora in Ottawa


The Whales Tohora exhibit offers a wondrous look at majestic mammals with deep meaning to the people of New Zealand.

Story by Tricia Edgar
Vacay.ca Outdoors Columnist

OTTAWA — Years ago, I sat in a darkened room under the ground, watching a baby whale nurse. It was a newborn beluga, and I was counting the number of times it fed, making sure it was properly nursing. The scene was serene: the mother floating, a small, grey baby underneath her.

It’s easy to be awed by the whale. With a flip of the fin, whales have migrated far into the human psyche. These huge mammals are able to swim to places that we will never see, and so they have moved their way into both popular and sacred culture as a symbol of the vast and mystical power of the oceans and their creatures.

New Exhibit  Ranges from Ecology to Psychology

The new Whales Tohora exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa explores the sacred nature of the whale. Caroline Lanthier, senior content developer at the museum, says that the display is a departure for the museum, whose usual focus is biology, not religion and politics. Never before has one of their museum displays delved so deeply into the spiritual and political meaning of an animal.

But these two most challenging of topics fit well into Whales Tohora. The display comes from New Zealand, and it highlights the connection between the aboriginal Maori and the whale. To the Maori, whales are sacred. Some tribes believe that their ancestor was brought to New Zealand on the back of a whale, and the Maori see the many whale strandings in New Zealand as a sign that they must care for the whales and for their environment. Whales Tohora explores the voices of the Maori and others as they discuss whaling, whale conservation, and the politics around the management of the oceans and of whale populations.

Whales Tohora is a massive exhibit, and since 2007 it has moved by boat, plane and truck across international borders. In fact, 15 trucks brought the exhibit to the museum in the nation’s capital. Lanthier says the biggest challenge was to move the larger whale skull into the space: it was too large for the elevator, and so it had to be hoisted through the air several storeys up, until it reached the fourth-floor exhibit.

The effort was well worth it. From sacred artifacts to theatres showcasing Maori tales of the sea, the display is rich in both content and hands-on materials. For children, there are a host of hands-on activities. Kids can wiggle into the life-size heart of a whale, or they can go diving with the whales in the whale theatre. The exhibit is multisensory, with whale parts to touch, whale sounds to hear, and whale ambergris to smell. The ambergris is from the intestine of the sperm whale and for many years it has been the basis of musky perfumes.

The whale skeletons are the highlight of the display. Step into the last room, and you’re greeted by the whales, two giant, bird-like creatures with long, slender heads. They’re the skeletons of two stranded sperm whales acquired in 1994 and 2004. They float in the darkened gallery space, awing visitors. From the corner of the room, you can hear the voices of whales in the deep, and for a moment, you might think that you’re at the bottom of the sea.

Whales Tohora is about these voices. It’s about the voice of the whales, and it’s an exploration of their amazing biology. It’s about the voice of the Maori as those who interact with whales in many layers of relationship — from sacred stories to whaling to whale conservation. This display is a new direction for the museum, and it is a good one. Artifacts and stories weave together to tell a tale of the connection between human culture and the magnificent whale.

Dates: May 2 to September 3, 2012
Admission: $20 for adults; $16 for children (includes admission to the museum and the exhibit). Tickets can be purchased online.
Address: 240 McLeod Street, Ottawa, ON
Hours: Saturday-Wednesday, 9 am-6 pm; Thursday and Friday, 9 am-8 pm.
More details: Visit the museum website.

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Note: Photo courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Nature

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