by Mariah Boyle, Ichthyology Lab
December 2008: Our boatload of kai vulagi (visitors) are heading towards Survivor Island (the one they used in Survivor: Fiji) for some exploring. All of a sudden, a whale spouts only about 50 yards away from our tiny boat. The whale is small, a juvenile. We follow it for a while – it is breathing often and doesn’t dive even when we are close. I know it is stressed. I can’t get a great look at it but notice its blowhole is offset to the side a bit.
I snap a bunch of photos to send back home to my marine science friends. I’m an ichthyologist, after all – I study fish, and I was out of my element trying to identify this whale in Fiji!
After returning home from the trip I looked up pictures of whales that live in the waters around Fiji and tried to identify it. Before finding a definitive answer, I got an email from Fiji: the whale had died and washed up on shore. A friend emailed me a Fiji Times article on the whale, which reported that upper teeth were not found in the whale, while the bottom 40 were removed using a ladder because the whale was so big! A lot of villagers thought that the whale’s top teeth had been stolen very early in the morning, as the teeth are used for tabua in Fiji, a sacred singular whale tooth on a string used for all sorts of formal ceremonies. I’d seen one right before I left Fiji presented to the island’s chief, Tui Mali, asking him to bless the engagement of a couple working on the island.
After reading that article it all clicked: no teeth in the upper jaw meant it must have been a sperm whale, which only have teeth in their bottom jaw! I looked up sperm whales online and sure enough they also have an offset blowhole. I showed the pictures to a friend and she agreed on the identification. I had been getting lots of messages asking me to try to identify the whale, and now I knew what it was! I researched a bit about sperm whales and wrote a blog for our group’s website to tell everyone about the whale. I felt good about identifying the whale and putting to rest the mystery – little did I know how it would be connected to my next visit to the same island…
Fast forward 6 months: I’m back in Fiji, and have been voted in as chief of our little kai vulagi tribe. I sit at the front of the mat chatting it up with the big chief Tui Mali. He and Tevita, his right hand man, tell me how happy they were about my article in the Fiji Times about the whale. Making sure this wasn’t just a mix-up, I told them I just wrote a blog on the Tribewanted website, not in the paper. They insisted that I indeed wrote something for the paper – that an article came out with my name on it saying that sperm whales only have teeth in their bottom jaws! This made Tui Mali very happy, as there had been stress between villages since everyone thought that a bunch of teeth were stolen and no one would fess up to it, but here it is in the paper that those teeth could not be stolen because they don’t exist! Tui Mali and Tevita laughed their unique and highly contagious belly laughs. Even though I never submitted an article, someone either did it for me (I still can’t find it online) or passed around my blog, but either way maka na leka (no worries), I’m glad I was able to help solve the whale teeth mystery! You never know what adventure is next when a marine biologist!
You are probably wondering how they got rid of the whale carcass. Poasa, the chief’s brother and elder of our island, decided to salvage the bones from the sperm whale and reconstruct it in his backyard for all visitors to see. He thinks it is the first on display in Fiji . Before I left the island I got him started on some supplies to preserve the bones. He jokingly said he just needs a bat and a frog in a cage, and he can charge admission to his zoo. I’m going to have to send him “Zoo Staff” t-shirts!
Want to head off to a remote eco-community in Fiji and experience some of this yourself? I highly recommend this group for a great experience – socially, culturally, and ecologically – www.tribewanted.com.