As you enter the gallery, they are hidden. But as your make your way through the exhibition, passing by strange artefacts made of teeth and bones, videos of “whale people” and even interactive games, there they are, suspended in all their glory.

Although a visit to Whales Tohorā, a temporary travelling exhibition from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, is a treat for all, the true highlight is definitely the skeletons of not one, but two sperm whales!

Male and female sperm whale (Physeter catodon) skeletons.
Tū Hononga (meaning “The Connection”) and Hinewainui (meaning “The Daughter of the Great Ocean”), the male and female sperm whale (Physeter catodon) skeletons, are now proudly on display in Whales Tohorā until September 3rd, 2012. Image: © Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2008
Outside the museum, a man blows through a Pukaea shell during a Māori ceremony.
Shane James performs the Karakia, a traditional Māori incantation. Image: Jennifer-Lee Mason © Canadian Museum of Nature

And these sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) have had quite the journey! Coming all the way from New Zealand, the female (named Hinewainui) and the male (named Tū Hononga) skeletons even have a team of exhibition specialists that travel with them, ensuring their overall care during travel and even during their installation.

The Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, have a long historical association with whales: whales provided them with practical items such as food and utensils, and are often featured in tribal traditions, stories and art. The Collection Manager from Te Papa, Shane James, a Māori himself, even performed the Karakia, a traditional incantation, before the specimens entered the museum.

Even getting Tū Hononga’s skull into the exhibition was quite the feat! (See this amazing operation in photos and video).

Although I’ve never been fortunate enough to see one of these magnificent creatures in the wild, I found out that many keen whale watchers have never had this privilege either. And the reason for this isn’t what you might think.

Since the International Whaling Commission issued a full protection status on the species in 1985, their population has, fortunately, begun to rise steadily. Although the exact number of sperm whales worldwide is unknown, it is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.

A sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus).
The sperm-whale (Physeter macrocephalus) population is estimated in the hundreds of thousands. Image: Brandon Cole © Brandon Cole

So, why are they still so elusive? Well, perhaps their deep-diving capabilities might have something to do with it. Sperm whales can dive down to 3 km deep (1.9 miles) and can even remain under water for up to 90 minutes!

Between dives, sperm whales will stay at the surface to breathe for only about 8 minutes. So if you don’t happen to spot a whale while it takes this quick breather, you may be waiting a while before it comes to the surface again.

You may be wondering what on Earth they’re doing under water for an hour and half! Well, the reason they dive so deep is to hunt out their preferred meals, the giant squid (Architeuthis sp.), the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) and various species of octopuses and fishes, all found at deep ocean depths.

A sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus).
Don’t be too disappointed if you don’t spot a sperm whale on a whale-watching excursion. A sperm whale will often stay submerged under water for up to an hour and a half! Image: ©

You can also imagine that creatures that large must eat a lot of food to be satisfied—and indeed they do! Sperm whales will eat around 3% of their body weight per day! Since a male like Tū Hononga weighs about 60 tonnes, that’s a lot of food!

So, with such a ravenous eating habit, it’s no wonder sperm whales spend so much time deep diving and hunting. Unfortunately for whale watchers though, it makes them that much harder to spot.

However, they’re certainly not hard to see in Whales Tohorā! So come and revere the bones of Hinewainui and Tū Hononga and you’ll certainly understand why these sperm whale skeletons are my favourite specimens in this exhibition!