Pygmy Blue Whale 

Pygmy Blue Whale, Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda, collected Sep 1994, Motutapu Island, Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. Gift of the Department of Conservation (AucklanPygmy Blue Whale, Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda, collected Sep 1994, Motutapu Island, Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. Gift of the Department of Conservation (Auckland Conservancy), 1994. Te Papad Conservancy), 1994. Te Papa

Pygmy Blue Whale, Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda, collected Sep 1994, Motutapu Island, Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. Gift of the Department of Conservation (Auckland Conservancy), 1994. Te Papa

Curriculum links

Learning areas

  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Mathematics

Which strands will it fit with?

  • Science: Living World
  • Social Studies: The Economic World; Place and Environment 
  • Mathematics: Measurement 

Key Competencies

Thinking; Relating to others

Levels of achievement

Levels 1–4

Year group

Years 1–8 

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Which topics of study can it support?

  • New Zealand flora and fauna
  • New Zealand society past and present


How long might this take?

Allow 5–10 minutes.

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Where do I find it?

Why should I take my class to visit this?

  • See how large a ‘pygmy’ blue whale is by examining its skeleton.
  • Meet one of Te Papa’s most amazing natural history specimens.
  • Find out about the largest creatures that ever lived.

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What is there to do there?

  • Stand underneath the whale and look up to appreciate its size.
  • Walk up the ramp to get a closer view.
  • Explore nearby NatureSpace where you'll find the skeleton of a killer whale (the type of whale that attacked this pygmy blue whale) and other information on marine creatures.
  • Imagine crawling through a whale’s blood vessel. It's not as far fetched as it sounds: some whales have blood vessels large enough for a child to actually crawl through!
  • Tell the story of Paikea, or talk about the movie Whale Rider (see below for a brief description).

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What should I know about this?

About this whale

  • This is the skeleton of a pygmy blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda), which is a subspecies of three subspecies of the blue whale. Pygmy blue whales are long, slender, streamlined whales. Females can grow up to 27 metres long, while the males grow to about 24 metres. (By comparison, the largest female southern blue whaleever caught stretched to 33.5 metres.)
  • The animal is 20.6 metres long and was a sub adult or ‘adolescent’ male.
  • A whale is not a fish. Whales are mammals and are fully aquatic carnivores. The collective term for whales, dolphins, and porpoises is Cetacea or cetaceans.
  • It was hit by a container ship in the northern waters of New Zealand in 1994. The impact of the ship smashed a large number of the whale’s bones and killed it. However, from raking scratches and cuts on its body, flippers, and flukes (tail fins), it is clear that it had been attacked by killer whales before being struck by the ship.
  • The whale was towed to Motutapu Island in Auckland Harbour where it was ‘flensed’ (de-fleshed) of its blubber and flesh. The bones were then enclosed in sea cages where marine bacteria and the action of the salt water cleaned off the remaining flesh. The bones were steam-cleaned and left in the sun to bleach and further dry out. The whole process took many months; afterwards, the skeleton was further steam-cleaned to remove more oil.
  • The skeleton was assembled for Te Papa's opening in 1998. As well as having one of world's largest collections of marine mammal specimens, Te Papa keeps records of all New Zealand whale strandings.

Whales: aquatic carnivores

  • A whale is not a fish. Whales are mammals and fully aquatic carnivores.
  • Blue whales are the biggest creatures on Earth today and perhaps the biggest creatures that have ever lived on Earth.
  • Their heart is as big as a small motorcar, and ten tonnes of blood pumps around their bodies.
  • Whales belong to the same group of animals as dolphins and porpoises - a group called Cetacea (or cetaceans).
  • It is thought that blue whales may live 60-90 years.
  • The world’s whales are divided into two types: those with teeth (such as sperm whales) and those without teeth known as ‘baleen’ whales. The blue whale does not have teeth - it is a baleen whale.
  • Baleen is made up of hundreds of plates made of hair-like material that serves as a sieve. These baleen plates hang down from the roof of the mouth like a hairy comb.
  • A whales tail flipper is called a fluke. These are moved up and down to push the whale forwards through the water. Although there is a tail bone, you will not see the fluke on this specimen because the flukes are made of dense connective tissue like collagen fibres and have no bone through them.

Whales in Te Ao Māori

  • Māori considered whales to be like rangatira (chiefs) so high-ranking men were sometimes compared to them. They were also associated with rich food and abundance.
  • Whales feature in Māori and Polynesian mythology, such as stories about the ancestor Paikea. These stories are honoured, commemorated and disputed –  especially through whakapapa (genealogy) lines – inTe Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (the Pacific), and various tribal areas of Aotearoa. 
  • One story involves the legendary chief Kahutia Te Rangi, from Ngāti Porou, who was carried on the back of a whale named Paikea when Ruatapu (his jealous brother) tried to kill him by drowning him in the sea. Paikea took Kahutia Te Rangi far away from Ruatapu and arrived safely in Aotearoa. Here, Kahutia Te Rangi assumed the name of his pet whale Paikea. He stayed in Aotearoa and settled at Whangara, where he married many women and had many children. Paikea the arikinui, Paikea the tipua, Paikea the tahuhu of Te Tairawhiti. He tipua! He taniwha! Hi!


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Possible topics for discussion

All about whales

How many species of whale are in New Zealand waters?

The term 'whale' covers a number of different groups that collectively are known as cetaceans, for instance there is a species called the killer whale, which is in fact the largest member of the dolphin family. So considering all cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) that occur in our waters, there are about 41 species of cetaceans in New Zealand waters.

Is a dolphin a whale?

Strictly speaking, Yes. Cetaceans can be divided into two main groups  those without teeth (the baleen whales) and those with (the toothed whales). Dolphins are in fact one family in the latter group, so a dolphin can be considered a small, toothed whale.

What are whales’ closest relatives?

Genetic studies and fossils that whales are related to hoofed mammals.

Are all whales carnivores?

Yes, but baleen and toothed whales eat different food.  Why? What might the different groups eat?

If whales, dolphins and porpoises are carnivores, what makes them different from other marine mammals like seals?

Whales and other cetaceans live permanently in the water, whereas seals come ashore to breed. Thus, cetaceans are defined as fully aquatic carnivores. There is another group of fully aquatic marine mammals: herbivores caled sireniens. The dugong and manatee are examples.

Measuring up

How long is this whale?

Ask the children to stretch out their arms and join hands: how many does it take to reach the end of the whale. Add approximately four more children to see how long this whale would have been if it had grown to full size.

How many children can you fit into the whale's mouth?

Stand under the whale’s jaw and see if you can fit the whole class into the whale’s mouth. The whale's mouth is almost 5 metres long!

Whales at Te Papa

Why does Te Papa collect whales? 

Since 1865, the Museum has been collecting data and specimens from stranded whales. We want to look at what species of whale occur in the waters around New Zealand and to learn about their biology, diet, and behaviour. We want to see how their distribution around New Zealand fits in with the distribution of species in other parts of the world. We also want to look at different features and characteristics of whale species and to see if we can find new species or records of species for New Zealand.

Whale strandings

What do we learn from whale strandings?

Whales are difficult species to study.  They travel great distances and spend a lot of time under water where they are hard to follow for any period of time. Strandings allow us to look at a number of different aspects of their biology, reproductive status, pathology, and diet.

Te Papa primarily collects the skeletons of stranded whales to look at the variation within and between species, and how the animals develop with age. We also look at how they vary between different geographical locations. Because we hold specimens permanently, compare material collected 150 years ago with material that is collected now, and see things such as the changes in the genetic diversity of population.

What should you do if you see a whale stranding?

Call the local Department of Conservation hotline (0800 362 468), the local DOC office, or Te Papa  we will call the appropriate subject expert.

How humans use whales

How did Māori use whales?

Whales were very important in traditional Māori culture and still are today. When a whale became beached it was utilised as a resource: no part was wasted. It provided much more than food alone: how many different uses for parts of a whale can you think of? (Remember to include bones, oil, flesh.)

What did the whaling industry provide for New Zealand and New Zealanders?

Discuss those early immigrants and the tools of their trade and what this industry provided. 

The information on the Guard Family in the Passoprts exhibition on level 4 shows examples of these tools. 

You can read about New Zealand's whaling history on Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Where were the major whaling stations in New Zealand?

Shore-based whaling stations started in New Zealand in the mid 1820s at Tory Channel and Preservation Inlet. Over the next decade, stations were established in many other localities particularly around Foveaux Strait, Banks Peninsula, and Cook Strait, although small whaling stations were dotted all around the country.  

Which countries still practise whaling? 

The main whaling nations today are Japan, Norway, and Iceland. Do you think they have a right to hunt whales? Why or why not?

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Further information

Related material

  • NatureSpace Discovery Centre, Level 2. Here you can see the skeleton of the killer whale, the type that attacked this pygmy blue whale.
  • The X-ray Room, Level 2, just past Mountains to Sea. Here you can see other skeletal specimens of marine creatures.
  • The Guard family, Level 4, inside the Passports exhibition. This exhibit shows an early immigrant family and some of the tools and weapons these early migrants used for hunting whales and seals.
  • Ngāti Pikiao pataka (food storage house), Level 4, next to Te Hau ki Turanga. Take a look at the raparapa or maihi (arms) of the pataka and see if you can spot the two whales carved into the raparapa. These whales represent ‘plenty’ or the ‘abundance of food’, and are also revered as guardians.
  • Mountains to Sea student activity trail. Download, print and fold into a booklet that your students can use to explore the Mountains to Sea exhibition.
  • Whales | Tohorā exhibition. This exhibition is currently touring overseas, but you can still find out some amazing facts about whales on this mini-site.

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