Whale Watching in Hong Kong’s Temples

Whale watching in Hong Kong is more of a forensic affair based on dead bodies. I am not talking about strandings of dolphins or whales. I am talking about whale bones lurking in dark corners of temples in Southern China, specifically Hong Kong.

Though large whales may occasionally pass through Hong Kong, most of them seem to only show up as carcasses washed in by tide and current. Even this is fairly rare. In the historical past when a dead or dying whale washed up in Hong Kong, it was often a big social and commercial event, because the whales carcass could be hacked apart to extract anything useful. Most notably the blubber could be boiled down to cooking oil and lamp oil.  All that was left at the end was the skeleton. And the bones were sometimes kept and displayed in temples.

It’s not been easy finding information on the role that whales played in Chinese culture in the past. Certainly there is no great tradition of whaling in China as there was in Japan – at least as far as I can see. One interesting tidbit I found refers to the famous “first emperor of China” – Qin Shi Huang (259–210 BC) who founded the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) and who had the Terracotta Army built. His mausoleum, which was rediscovered in the 1990s twenty-two miles east of Xi’an, contained candles made from whale fat [blubber].

However, there are plenty of examples of whale bones in Hong Kong temples.

Tin Hau Temple, Peng Chau

I visited this temple not too long ago and saw that it has 2 large whale ribs ( about 1.8m in length). I don’t know the species, but for those interested there is a plaque explaining the bones in the temple as far as I remember.

A large blackened rib of a whale leaning against the right wall between the altar and the statue.

Yeung Hau Temple, Tai O

Although dedicated to Hau Wong, the temple also hosts some other gods including Hung Shing (the god of the sea) which explains the whale vertebrae and sawfish snouts kept next to his altar.

hau-wong-temple-tai-o
The bill of a sawfish leaning against the altar on the left wall with some whale vertebrae in front.

Kwan Tai Temple, Tai O

I actually found no information on the whale bones at this temple on the internet. But as I saw them for myself and took the below picture, I include this temple in this list.

Whale vertebrae and an explanatory plaque st Kwan Tai Temple, Tai O

Tam Kung Miu Temple, Coloane, Macau

The temple is dedicated to Tam Kung, the Taoist god of sailors and houses a four-foot replica of a dragon boat made from whale bone  (most likely a rib) – complete with wooden sailors in red robes and yellow hats.

The dragon boat made of whale bone (rib)
The dragon boat made of whale bone (rib) with a piece of whale rib leaning against the wall behind it.

Pak Tai Temple, Cheung Chau

Contains some whale bone fragments which were dredged up in a fishermen’s trawl and then presented to the temple deity along with a few snouts of sawfish.

Another whale rib (covered in flaking red paint) leaning in the corner to the left of this minor altar.

Hau Wong Temple, Tung Chung

Hosts a ‘large whalebone’ which I have yet to see.

Tin Hau Temple, Yung Shue Wan, Lamma

In the temple exhibits an ancient whale skeleton that enshrines the Tin Hau. I have not seen it yet so I can not confirm this.

Tin Hau Temple, Sha Chau Island

Sha Chau is part of the marine park often dubbed ‘dolphin sanctuary’. Inside the Tin Hau temple on the island there is allegedly a four feet long model of a dragon boat made from whalebone, though I can not confirm this.

Another large whale rib in the Tin Hau Temple on Sha Chau Island

Tin Hau Temple, Sok Kwu Wan, Lamma Island

An oarfish ( a rare deep-sea dwelling fish) that was washed ashore is kept in preservatives in a tank on display at this temple.

sokkwuwan-oar-fish
While alive this deep-sea fish would have had radiant red-pink fins and a silver body.

If you know of any other temples in Hong Kong, Macao or the greater Guangdong area , please leave me a comment!

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Stranded Whale Rescued by Beachgoers in South China

According to the Southern Metropolis Daily, a dwarf sperm whale (Kogia simus) was stranded at a beach in Daya Bay on the 23rd of May. The report stated that over a dozen people joined in the rescue effort, using their hands to spread seawater over the cetacean to help moisten its skin before pushing the animal to deeper water. The animal eventually swam away on its own.

Staff at the Daya Bay Fisheries Provincial Nature Reserve Management Office said that dwarf sperm whales are “very rare” in the waters around Daya Bay. The species is known to generally live in deeper water near the continental shelf. The animal was noted to have red blotches and scars indicating disease or parasites.

on the 12 of May 2016 I posted about a dwarf or pygmy sperm whale that washed up dead at Sao Wan Ho (Hong Kong), click here for the blog post and images.

Dead Huizhou Sperm Whale Was Pregnant Female

China Daily reported that an autopsy on the sperm whale that became stranded in Daya Bay, in South China’s Guangdong province, has revealed the whale was pregnant. A crane hoisted the dead sperm whale out of the Harbor last Wednesday. 
A developing 110 kg male fetus, about two meters in length, was recovered.

“It is the first time that an unborn baby has been found inside a stranded sperm whale in the world,” said Tong Shenhan, head of the land and marine life research institute of Xiamen city, who participated in the autopsy.

He believed that the finding would be of significance to the protection and rescue of sperm whale.

On Thursday, a group of about 20 experts from the School of Marine Sciences of Sun Yat-Sen University, Hong Kong Ocean Park and other institutes, conducted the autopsy in Huizhou Fishery Research and Extension Center, in Guangdong, taking samples of skin, fat, muscle and blood from the adult sperm whale.

They unexpectedly found milk in the whale’s breasts and then a placenta 2.6 meters in length.

The fetus will also undergo an autopsy, which is expected to take about one month due to its difficulty.

On Sunday morning, fishery authorities in Shenzhen city received a report of an adult whale trapped in fishing nets in waters off Daya Bay.

After the whale was freed from the nets, authorities and zoologists tried to guide it back into deep sea. However, it continued to swim in shallow waters off Shenzhen and Huizhou cities. It was confirmed to have been stranded near a wharf Tuesday afternoon and died Wednesday.

Tong said that the whale, estimated to be about 5 years old, was healthy and had no visible injuries.

He does not think it was tangled to death by fishing nets but the cause of death will be verified in at least a month.

The animal, weighing 14 tons and stretching 10 meters long, was lifted by a crane from the water in Huizhou port on Wednesday and was transported to Huizhou Fishery Research and Extension Center.

Huizhou has invited experts to conduct research on the whale examining its physiological structure, molecular biology, zoology and pathology, to provide more scientific data and theory for the protection of the endangered sperm whale.

The autopsy on the adult whale will continue over the next two days.

The city also plans to preserve four specimens of the animal’s skin, bone, viscera and placenta.

Sperm Whale Injured By Fishing Nets Trapped in Huizhou Harbor

A sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) received serious injuries to its tail while caught in a fishing net, which have left it only able to swim in circles, according to news portal chinanews.com (14/3/17).

The whale may have also damaged its sonar system, meaning it cannot find its way back to deeper waters.
The 12-meter-long mammal was found struggling in waters near Shenzhen on Sunday, suffering from several gashes with a tail fin that had been damaged by a fishing net.

Local divers and fishery officials worked together to release it from the net and guide it back to open waters.

However, the animal was too tired to make it away from the shore, and ended up in Huizhou Port on Monday, mere meters from the land. Huizhou is about 50 kilometers away from Shenzhen.

Local officials and 30 experts from the Hong Kong Ocean Park and the Institute of Deep-Sea Science and Engineering under the Chinese Academy of Sciences are monitoring the animal. 

One expert suggested luring or driving the whale back to the sea by using whale sounds or those of predators.

However, the expert warned that the whale may have to be poisoned or blown up if rescue efforts fail.

Wu Gang, deputy director of the Huizhou Marine and Fisheries Bureau, said they will first try to treat the whale’s injuries and that euthanasia will only be considered as a last resort.

Sai Wan Ho Dead Dolphin Turns Out To Be Dwarf or Pygmy Sperm Whale

The dead dolphin I posted about yesterday has been reclassified as either a dearf or Pygmy sperm whale by AFCD and Ocean Park Conservation Fund staff. The two-metre-long decomposing whale was found a few metres from the marine police base at Tai Hong Street in Sai Wan Ho.

It is believed it was a male dwarf sperm whale, but a genetic test is needed to confirm its species. The other possibility is its relative, the pygmy sperm whale. Both species are rare in local waters.
Dwarf sperm whales and pygmy sperm whales are extremely similar and usually indistinguishable when spotted at sea. They are widely distributed in tropical and temperate zones of all the world’s oceans.

The first and only recorded local sighting of a dwarf sperm whale was in 1991. There were four previous local discoveries of pygmy sperm whales, with the most recent in 2014.

The Tai Po Whale of 1914 and the Taipo Whale of 2014

I found another ‘gem’ while looking through old HK newspapers:

A Whale Now!

A reader informs us that a whale 23 feet [7m] in length was seen in Tolo Harbour, near Taipo, on Sunday [11th of May 1914], and that the police, from a launch, fired three rounds at the mighty creature, which however disappeared.”

Taken from the Hong Kong Telegraph 13th of May 1914
Taken from the Hong Kong Telegraph 13th of May 1914
How strange to think that back then the first reaction on seeing a big whale, was to pull out a gun and shoot it!

It struck me as quite interesting, that Tolo Harbor near Taipo was also the site the stranding of a 42-foot (13m) Omura’s whale in March 2014 – almost exactly 100 years later!

Tolo Harbor is almost completely enclosed by land so any whale erring into it is bound to get confused, I think.

The Macau Whale Stranding Febuary 3rd, 1933

Sometimes it is very amusing and interesting to realize how different we see the environment now in 2015 compared to our attitudes the last century. A case in point is this gem of a news article from 1933 about a 25-foot (7.6 m) whale that stranded in Macau. Today, we would go to extraordinary efforts and spare no cost to rescue the whale and help it out to sea. Back in 1933 attitudes were a bit different, however…

“Much excitement was created in the little fishing hamlet of Tsam Mang Chin, not far from the Macao Barrier Gate, when a whale, 25 feet long, drifted ashore and was left high and dry on the beach when the tide went out.
The villagers were all activity, when the monster was sighted, and measures were promptly taken to prevent its escape. The whale was soon dragged higher up the beach, where it was killed, and operations to convert the oil and remains into cash were immediately carried out.

All day long, villagers from the surrounding country trooped into the hamlet to buy the whale oil and the flesh until nothing was left of the monster excepting the bones.

A fee was later charged for viewing the skeleton.

Some idea of the size of the whale may be gathered from the fact that a thousand catties [500 kg] of oil and twice the amount of flesh were sold by the captors.”

(Hong Kong Telegraph February 3rd, 1933)

These days, however, a “big whale” in Macau refers to big-ticket casino gamblers from mainland China. But with the anti-corruption campaign ongoing in China, the new “big whales” seem to be facing the same sort of steep decline that the real whales faced in the 20th century!