19 October, 2018, Sydney: The incredible world of whales will be brought to life in Sydney when the major international exhibition Whales │Tohorā opens on 20 October at the Australian Museum (AM), with its powerful mix of science, storytelling and innovative technology.

Whales have captured our imaginations for centuries. From being revered and mythologised to being hunted and passionately protected. But how much do we really know about this extraordinary group of mammals which includes the largest living creature in the world?

Presenting the latest cetacean research from the international scientific community, the exhibition developed by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, explores the diversity, biology and adaptation of whales to life in our oceans and celebrates their role in South Pacific Islanders’ deep cultural history.

“Sydney is a city steeped in whale history. From the stories of our First Nations people to the sad days of whale hunting and whaling stations based in Sydney Harbour and the whale-watching tourism industry,” Australian Museum Director & CEO, Kim McKay AO said.

Whales │Tohorā is a unique and powerful exhibition which makes the science of whales accessible to all ages through innovative interactive experiences while also powerfully celebrating the important relationships between whales and humans including the rich culture and history of the South Pacific.”

“Sadly, today many species of cetaceans are under threat and endangered, and I hope visitors to this exhibition will come away with a greater understanding and appreciation for these magnificent and enigmatic giants of the ocean, and a renewed passion for their protection,” McKay added.

Featuring one of the most extensive collections of whale skeletons ever displayed including a massive 18m skeleton of a sperm whale; a dozen beaked whale skulls; skeleton casts of ancient whale ancestors and fin whale ribs and vertebrae, Whales │Tohorā also includes a life-size model of the heart of the largest creature to have ever lived on Earth, the Blue Whale, which can grow up to 30 metres long and has a heart the size of a small car.

Combining the science of whales with the lives of those who have been inextricably linked with whales - from the legendary South Pacific whale riders to whale scientists and former whaling families - the exhibition investigates the effect of pollution, extreme weather, shipping channels and commercial fishing on whale migration.

Humpback Whales are frequent visitors to Australian coastal waters. They undertake seasonal, long migrations from the cooler feeding grounds in the Antarctic to warmer waters in the tropics to give birth.

A great deal of whale research has been possible due to advances in technology including satellite tags. Marine mammal scientist, Australian Antarctic Division, Dr. Virginia Andrews-Goff, who has used satellite tracking devices to examine the foraging habits and migration path of eastern Australian Humpback Whales, has recently released a ground-breaking research paper on this species. (http://www.antarctica.gov.au/news/2018/hungry-humpbacks-stop-for-snacks-during-migration-south)

“For the first time, we have been able to see the varied routes these whales take on their migration to Antarctica, some of which were unknown until now. Traditionally, Humpbacks were thought to employ a feast and famine approach to migration, but what we have observed is that they often stop for up to 35 days to forage – either off New Zealand or the east coast of Tasmania.”

The research also examined the characteristics of the Antarctic feeding ground. “Whales time their arrival for when the ice is retreating rapidly towards the continent, and the data shows they concentrate their foraging efforts where the ice was located two months prior,” Dr. Andrews-Goff said.

Australian Museum palaeontologist Dr Matthew McCurry said that whales are a fascinating case study in evolution, as they evolved from terrestrial hoofed animals, which lived around 50 million years ago, to become the largest and one of the most unique animals on our planet.

Dr McCurry is currently undertaking research with international partners on how the brain size of whales has changed over time using CT scanning and how they evolved to filter-feed using sophisticated biomechanical analyses.

“This research can teach us about their history and evolution and will add to the body of knowledge that is being showcased by the Whales | Tohorā exhibition,” Dr McCurry said.

Whales are at the top of the ocean food chain and are therefore a fundamental component of marine ecosystems. They face threats from whaling, overfishing and pollution.

The AM has partnered with the World Wide Fund for Nature – Australia (WWF) to aid in whale conservation by joining their #ReduceYourUse campaign. Visitors to the Australian Museum are also invited to take part in the campaign by pledging to reduce their use of plastics by signing up.

“We have been committed to understanding and protecting the oceans for over 190 years and today the AM is pleased to promote its message in collaboration with the World Wide Fund for Nature,” McKay said.

“Vast amounts of plastic end up in our oceans each year killing the marine creatures we cherish. We all need to better understand the impacts of plastic and take action to reduce our plastic use,” Head of Oceans, WWF-Australia, Richard Leck said.

Whales | Tohorā presents a powerful combination of science and storytelling encouraging visitors to dive deeper into the mysterious world of these magnificent mammals with some of the world’s finest specimens.

The Whales | Tohorā exhibition was developed by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and made possible through the support of the New Zealand Government.


Dates: 20 October 2018 – 28 April 2019.

Tickets: $22single - $72family. https://australianmuseum.net.au/landing/whales/

Events: Night Talk 15 Nov 2018. 5.45pm – 7.45pm. Whales, Drones and the Future of marine mammal research.

Vanessa Pirotta from Macquarie University Marine Predator Research Group uses drones to collect whale snot. Hear how her research, in concert with citizen science, can help support whale health and wildlife conservation. Tickets: $16Member / $20 Admission includes a welcome drink and complimentary access to Whales / Tohora exhibition.

About the Australian Museum (AM)

The AM, founded in 1827 is the nation’s first museum, and is an internationally recognised natural science and culture institution focused on Australia and the Pacific. As custodian of more than 21 million objects and specimens, the AM is uniquely positioned to provide a greater understanding of the region through its scientific research, exhibitions and public and education programs. Through the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI), the AM also has a leading role in conserving Australia’s biodiversity through understanding the environmental impacts of climate change, potential biosecurity threats and invasive species.

Media contact

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