Whales' tales at Museum of Natural History

Fifth graders from P.S. 87 climb into a Fifth graders from P.S. 87 climb into a replica of a blue whale's heart during a press preview of "Whales: Giants of the Deep" at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. (March 20, 2013) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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For the first time, visitors will see more than one life-size whale at the American Museum of Natural History.

Two real sperm whale skeletons are on display -- a 58-foot long male and a 32-foot long female from New Zealand. The new exhibit explores the evolutionary human connection with "Whales: Giants of the Ocean."

It opened on Saturday and is touted as the museum's most comprehensive in-depth look at the majestic ocean mammals, whose genealogy traces back to a wolf-size fish eater that lived on land 50 million years ago -- the Pakicetus attocki.

A preview last Wednesday featured traditional conch shell horn blowing and a Maori blessing of "incantations" that were made by several whale and cultural Maori experts from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

"We have a genealogy connection with whales," said Pou Waikato, a professor of Maori culture and customs who chanted the blessing in Maori, the indigenous language of New Zealand.

"We were evoking the spirits of our ancestors and the spirits of the whales to ensure that this exhibit enhances the understanding of these beautiful animals," he said later.

Howard Rosenbaum of Great Neck, a whale lover and director of the Ocean Giants program at the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Bronx, said the new exhibit is "a coming home" experience.

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"I saw my first whale in Montauk and I knew then I wanted to study them," said Rosenbaum, who has sailed the oceans of the world tracking the behemoths in their habitats for the Museum of Natural History. "They are remarkable animals and I get to protect them."

"Whales intrigue, astound and inspire us with their gigantic proportions," said Ellen V. Futter, president of the American Museum of Natural History, whose exhibit includes 20 skulls from an array of whale species.

There is also a video presentation that shows how whales are studied and tracked; a real-size replica of a blue whale heart that kids can crawl through, and an audio exhibit where visitors can hear the voices of whales and learn how they communicate.

Other artifacts on display are whale bone jewelry and whale tooth engravings from New Zealand and Massachusetts that illustrate these regions' cultural and commercial dependence on whale hunting.

Museum visitors also will be able to smell ambergris, a waxy substance from a whale's intestines that wash up on shore and are used to make perfumes, makeup and candles.

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"This is an awe inspiring exhibit that brings together nature and culture in a way that speaks to where whales go; people will follow," said Mark Donovan of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. More information is available at amnh.org. The exhibit runs until January 2014.

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