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The Story of Hong Kong’s Whale on World Whale Day

‘Restoring Hong Kong’s Whale’ is an ongoing SWIMS project which aims to protect the nearly 70 year old bones by incorporating them into the biodiversity museum and replace the display skeleton outside with a 3D printed replica so that Hong Kong’s Whale can continue to act as a symbol for marine conservation. To celebrate this year’s World Whale Day, we are sharing the story of Hong Kong’s whale which has become an iconic attraction at Cape d’Aguilar.

The skeleton belonged to an infant fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) that perished along a pier in Victoria Harbour in April of 1955. The animal was first spotted by fishing vessels outside the Eastern corridor of Victoria Harbour. It took nearly four days for the whale to make its way to Ming Wah Wharf (near Sheung Wan, since reclaimed) where it was deemed to be suffering by the authorities, so it was humanely euthanized.

Members of the family Balaenopteridae, also known as the great whales (including the Humpback and Blue Whale), are extremely rare visitors in Hong Kong waters. For one to make its way into Victoria Harbour was described by a local newspaper at the time as akin to, “seeing a wild Giant Panda on the Peak.” These animals reproduce and give birth in warm, tropical oceans in winter and migrate north to cooler, more productive waters in the summer. Most likely, Hong Kong’s Whale somehow got separated from its mother during their migration northward and wound up in Hong Kong. Fin whales typically consume small fish and planktonic crustaceans, however, young whales that have not weaned off their mother require more than 100 liters of milk each day, so it was likely starving by the time it entered the harbor.

The whale drew crowds of spectators along the wharf and was eventually towed to a beach near Aberdeen where it was studied and dissected by students and staff of the zoology department of the University of Hong Kong (HKU). That is when they identified the animal to be a male fin whale and determined it was less than two months old. The bones were cleaned, dried, and displayed at HKU. In 1990 when Professor Brian Morton founded the Swire Marine Laboratory (now SWIMS) the skeleton was erected onto a metal frame and secured to the rocks overlooking the bay at Cape d’Aguilar where it still resides.

After more than thirty years of exposure to typhoons, salt spray, and Hong Kong’s summer sun, the skeleton is being retired into the Biodiversity Museum within SWIMS to help preserve it. Visitors who come to enjoy the scenic beauty of the marine reserve and the rocky shores of Cape d’Aguilar will still be able to pose for photos beneath and learn about Hong Kong’s Whale and SWIMS’ message of conservation and the importance of biodiversity. An exact replica of the skeleton is being 3D printed and will stand exactly as the existing one does now.

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the fin whale’s population trend is increasing, with an estimated 100,000 individuals globally.

Happy World Whale Day!

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