Friday, October 29, 2010

Somewhere in the deep blue sea

10 October 2010 (101010) was a beautiful day for married couples. In Chinese, it means perfect ten (十全十美). It was reported in newspaper that a pair of happy couples even organised their wedding dinner in the midnight when the clock just clicked to the perfect ten in order to be right on time for 101010!

While performing my NMS (National Museum of Singapore) duty on the perfect day, I also witnessed two pair of couples having their happy occasions in the Museum. A group of young children squeezed through the crowd and bumped onto me, asking where could they see the skeleton of a dinosaur.

They should have been informed by their parents or the older generations about the huge display suspended from the ceiling in the museum before the 1970s. Many people of our generation thought that they had seen the dinosaur's skeleton in the museum once upon a time. But in actual, dinosaur was imaginary and was said to be disappeared from our planet 65 million years ago. They lived in a not so perfect time and hence they were extinct before the first human ever existed on earth.

If it was not a dinosaur's skeleton, what was it then?

That large suspended skeleton in the Raffles Museum (the name of NMS then) attracted a lot of my attention too when I was as young as those children who were searching for the dinosaur. In that era, the Raffles Museum had very rich natural history collection. Most of the zoological specimens originated from Southeast Asia and could be traced as far back as 1840s.

Admission to the museum was free for all. For people like me who were living and studying nearby, walking into the museum had become part and parcel of our lives.

The 15m skeleton suspended from the ceiling of the museum's passageway was actually an Indian Fin Whale. Before knowing it was a whale's skeleton, I always had the impression that the largest animal on earth was none other than the elephants. My little brain just could not imagine how would a giant larger than an elephant swim in the sea without losing all its buoyancy. This was how backward my knowledge was as a young boy without the luxury of free information access through internet world and television programmes. However, the skeleton in the museum was educational and was like a new discovery.

After a massive restoration exercise of the museum in 2003 and re-opened in 2006, the original passageway for the whale's skeleton has transformed into a glass corridor. The glass panels enable us to appreciate the fish-scaled zinc tiled Rotunda Dome within the closest possible distance safely.

The Fin Whale has a scientific name called Balancenoptera. It was found stranded on a beach near Kampong Sa Batu (about 10km south of Malacca Town) on 19 June 1892. After Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965, the skeleton was eventually returned back to Malaysia and now resides in Labuan Marine Museum.

Whales are mammals and not fish. Whales have lungs and breath air whereas fish have gills and breath water. Whales are warm-blooded while fish are cold-blooded. Whales perform internal fertilization, produce milk for their young and are endothermic vertebrates.

Broadly whales can be classified into the Toothed Whales and the Toothless Baleen Whales. Killer whales and Sperm whales belong to the Toothed Whales group. An adult Killer whale is about 8m in length and weigh about 8 ton. A Sperm whale can grow up to about 18m and weigh 50 ton. Many toothed whales have highly convoluted brains larger than those of humans and are believed to be highly intelligent. While most whales must surface every 3 to 20 minutes to change air, the Sperm whales can remain submerged as deep as 1.6km for more than an hour.

(Killer Whale)

Baleen whales include the fin whales and the blue whales, among others. They are larger than the Toothed whales. A Fin whale can grow up to about 22m and 80 ton. A Blue whale is about 27m and 120 ton. In comparison, an elephant is about 4m tall and weigh about 6 ton.

(Baleen Whale)

Large whales have been drastically reduced in numbers due to intensive whaling. Following the ban on commercial whaling of all large whales since 1984-85, and large portions of ocean have been designated whale sanctuaries, some species have begun to return to acceptable level, but others such as the blue whales are still rare and endangered.

Interestingly, DNA studies and skeletal evidence from extinct early whales indicate that whales evolved from the ancestors of artiodactyls, a group that includes hippopotamuses, cows, pigs, and deer.

In military context, submarines and whales have many similarities. They both find their way through the deep dark ocean in very much the same way. Whales, using natural bodily functions and organs, send out a sound at frequency range of 16 to 40 Hz into the deep dark waters and received the sound that is transferred back through the water. Judging by the angle the sound returned to and the time it took, the whale forms a clear picture in its brain of its surrounding. A submarine uses the same sonar system for such situation analysis.

In the deep blue sea, sometime it is also not so straight forward to be able to identify a submarine from a whale.

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