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Whale show opens at the American Museum of Natural History

"Whales: Giants of the Deep" at the American Museum of Natural History wows visitors with sperm whale skeletons, interactive fun and Maori culture.

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

  • Photograph: Jessica Lin

    American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"

Photograph: Jessica Lin

American Museum of Natural History: "Whales: Giants of the Deep"


Just in time for spring break, "Whales: Giants of the Deep," a new show at the American Museum of Natural History, opens on Saturday, March 23. It seeks to illuminate one of the most fascinating and mysterious creatures to live on earth: cetaceans, the order of mammals that includes whales, porpoises and dolphins. The enormously kid-friendly exhibition originated at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and was cocurated at the American Museum of Natural History by paleontologist John Flynn, Ph.D., Frick curator of fossil mammals. "Everyone is fascinated by whales," says Flynn. "They're magnificent, majestic and they have dramatically impacted people." The exhibit is organized to introduce visitors to what Flynn calls the full spectrum of whales: "their history, evolution, biology, their similarities to humans, and the interaction of whales and humans." Here are seven of our favorite ways to explore the show as a family.

Learn the surprising origin of whales
It's startling to discover that the giants of the deep we know as today's whales evolved from carnivorous land-dwelling mammals, beginning about 50 million years ago—exactly the opposite of evolution's initial path, from water to land. The cast of a fossil skull of one such animal, Andrewsarchus mongoliensis, is among AMNH's unique additions to the show. Says Flynn, "It was the largest meat-eating land mammal ever." (The AMNH specimen is also the only fossil of its kind to have been found to date.) Kids can study other skeletons of whale forbears—such as Pakicetus attocki, a wolf-sized fish eater living along the shore of a shallow ocean—to see telltale evidence of the evolutionary changes under way: As the land dwellers became amphibious, then completely aquatic, their back legs became smaller and their forelegs larger and more paddle-like; and their nostrils moved back and up, to eventually become a blowhole.

Follow a sperm whale on its hunt for food
Inside a dark mini-theater, families can watch "Search and Destroy," a video simulation of the dive and ascent of a sperm whale from one breath at the water's surface to the next. (The film was made using scientific data from digital tags affixed to actual sperm whales.) Curious kids will learn that although the sperm whale has giant teeth in its lower jaw, it doesn't use them to chew its prey—fish, giant squid—but rather swallows them whole.

Check out the diversity of whales and their anatomy
More than 79 species of cetaceans live today, and they're all documented in a huge curved chart that breaks them into two groups: baleen and toothed whales. Baleen whales, which include such giants as blue, humpback and right whales, subsist largely on plankton and krill, which the hairy baleen plates capture in a filter-like way as the whale expels water from its mouth. Toothed whales, an enormous group that includes sperm whales, beaked whales, orcas, monodons (like narwhals), porpoises and dolphins, are usually much smaller than baleen whales, and rely on echolocation to find their food; they send out high-frequency sonar clicks into the deep and learn of the presence of prey when those signals bounce back to them. A nearby touchscreen game lets kids try to put together various whale species by choosing the correct (matching) head, midsection and tail.

Be awed by the skeletons of two sperm whales
In the exhibition's center are two actual sperm whale skeletons, one male and one female, that reveal whales' majesty, well, majestically. The enormous specimens, not even the largest of whales (that honor belongs to blue whales, which are the largest living mammals in the world), let kids observe the creatures' anatomy firsthand. The head takes up one third of a male's body and one quarter of a female's; and both have immense but flexible vertebrae, necessary for propelling the huge mammals through the water. Marine biologists–in-training will also learn that scientists have been able to identify from the female skeleton that some of the animal's bones were once broken and that she was probably chased to the shore by a killer whale intent on eating her.

Climb into a scale model of a blue-whale heart
Visitors big and small are invited to explore a life-size replica of the heart of a blue whale, which in real life weighs about 1,410 pounds and pumps 10 tons of blood through the whale's body. Even grownups can fit inside the heart's arteries. Kids can learn a little more about blue whales from display text: that their numbers dwindled from 350,000 to 2,000 in the 20th century, thanks to commercial whaling; that they're among the ocean's fastest swimmers, reaching a speed of up to 30 miles an hour; and that very little is known about them.

Listen to whale songs (and clicks)
New Agers' children may have heard "whale song," complex, often low-frequency vocalizations that come from baleen species such as humpback whales. But toothed whales make sounds of their own in the process of echolocation, which are usually higher-pitched or consist of clicking sounds. A special, semienclosed sound chamber lets young visitors choose one of eight whale species on a dial, then listen to its sounds—from whistles to sonorous rumbles—emitting from large speakers.

Learn about the Maori culture's whale-centric history
One of the best things about this show is that it was produced by a country and a culture with profound ties to whales. The southern hemisphere is home to many more species of whales than our own, and stranding—whales washing ashore—is commonplace. (According to John Flynn, scientists have discovered the existence of some whale species solely because they washed ashore there.) Families can learn about the Maori people's whaling history, which ranged from making use of beached animals (for their ivory, bone, meat and oil) to shore-based whaling. (They'll get a glimpse of 19th-century American and European whaling expeditions too, with a logbook of one on a New Bedford, Massachusetts, ship; a beautifully scrimshawed dolphin's skull, carved aboard a whaling ship; and a copy of Moby Dick.) Young visitors can discover some Maori mythology as well, including three stories about Paikea, the whale rider (the inspiration for the film of the same name), a figure who got his name from the whale that rescued him when his brother tried to drown him at sea. Despite the long history of Maori whaling traditions, New Zealand backed the International Whaling Commission's 1986 moratorium on whaling, and the country has become a vital proponent of the movement to do whatever is necessary to save whales from destruction at the hands of humans. It's a sentiment the organizers of this exhibit clearly, and proudly, share.

"Whales: Giants of the Deep" is on view at the American Museum of Natural History from March 23 through January 4, 2014.


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