16 October 2008

Tropical whales, in Singapore?

Sadly, a whale that got stranded in Pahang last week has died.An autopsy showed the female whale had swallowed a black plastic bag, a rope and a bottle cap, which clogged its intestine.

It's frustrating that just a few carelessly thrown items like these can kill such a magnificent creature. This is certainly something to highlight in the on-going efforts to educate about marine litter.

The whale was identified as Bryde's whale (pronounced "Bro-dess") aka the tropical whale (Balaenoptera edeni). Another Bryde's whale stranded and died in Sabah (East Malaysia) in 2006 (links to news on this on the Raffles Museum News blog).

What are tropical whales and were any encountered in Singapore?

Whales are like us
From the little that known about the tropical whale, they are much like us. The tropical whale can live up to 72 years and usually lives alone or in pairs, although several may gather at feeding sites.
They eat fish and krill and grow to 11.5-14.5m and weigh 12-20 tonnes. (from the BBC website)

Singapore whales?

Those of us old enough to remember the old Singapore National Museum when it still had its natural history component will surely recall the whale bones that hung at the entrance. This whale actually died in Malacca and its bones sent to Singapore.

This skeleton was of a 42 ft baleen whale from Sabatu, near Malacca, acquired on 19 June 1892. In the 1970s, when it was decided that the Museum should "concentrate on arts and anthropology" and give up its zoological collection, the skeleton was among the exhibits given up. This skeleton is now at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (from the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research website).

Here's more details about the history of this whale skeleton from a news article carried on the Raffles Museum News blog.

"There is one certain record of the Blue whale from Malaysian waters. An immature 42ft was standed on beach at Kg Sa'Batu Malacca on June 19, 1892".
According to Hanitsh (1908: 13), a "pagar" was built around it to prevent it getting back to water at high tide and was left to die. "It lingered for a week making a bull-like noise for 3 days, no use was made of the blubber but DRR Harvey, then Resident Councillor of Malacca, had the skeleton cleaned and sent to the Raffles Museum.
"Nothing could be done with it at that time owing to lack of space in the existing galleries. In 1907, it was hung over the passage-way between the old and new building. At first it was identified as Humpback Whale.

"Actually though it might possibly occur here, there is no record of the Humpback from the Malaysian sub-region. "Later this Malacca specimen was re-examined and the designation changed to the Indian Fin Whale, a synonym of Blue Whale."
Here's another photo of the whale bones while they were in Singapore, on Okinawa Soba's flickr site.

Although the whale bones have left our shores, they remain part of our memories. The National Museum (which is now completely devoid of any natural history) in its 120th anniversary celebration of 120 voices had this among the many quotes of museum memories:

"I graduated from the University of Malaya and joined the museum in 1956 as the first local curator of zoology. The museum then was the biggest building along Stamford Road; there was nothing else like it. It was only shophouses all the way to the seafront. It was a stately awesome building, the visitors would walk through the main entrance, stand in the Rotunda and look up at the skylight. That was something worth looking at. You walked up the stairway and suspended above you was a huge skeleton. You thought it was a dinosaur but it was actually a whale. Not many people have seen such a sight before, it was a fantastic introduction to the museum." – Eric Alfreds, Curator/Director, Raffles/National Museum, 1950s - 70s
Members of the public still reminisce about the whale bones during the outreach efforts by the ToddyCats, volunteers of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.

Update 13 Jul 2015: From Google News of the New Straits Times 27 Jan 1994 about the False killer whale that was stuck in Singapore, Tuas Bay.

From the DNA of Singapore on the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum website:

"In 1994, a 3.75 m female False Killer Whale (Pseudorca crassidens), swam into Tuas Bay and stayed for a week. It was believed to have been trapped in the bay and unable to find its way out despite attempts being made to guide it out. It was later found dead off Tuas."


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