Museo di Storia Naturale di Venezia

Natural History Museum of Venice Giancarlo Ligabue


Cetaceans Gallery

This is a specimen of huge dimensions that was washed up on the shore on 8th November 1928 in S. Giovanni a Teduccio (Naples), when it was already in an advanced state of decomposition. It had already lost all its whalebones and the lateral back area had been extensively torn. Its state of conservation leads one to believe that it had died several weeks or even a month earlier, before being washed ashore. Its length, including the tail was 18.60 metres, with a maximum height of 3.70 metres in the post cranial area. It took 15 workers three full days to strip the flesh off the skeleton and divide it into four pieces, which were then sent to the Zoological Institute in Naples, and to clean the bones. When it was mounted the bones had to be cleaned, degreased, bleached and consolidated with reversible resins. The installation was all done in steel, under the guidance of the museum’s scientific staff.

Biology and distribution
The finback whale has a very varied diet, which also depends on what is available in the different areas it is in. It eats shrimps (Euphausiacea, the so-called krill), which it hunts with great skill, small squid and schools of small fish such as herrings, which it swallows turning on its side, with a movement that is probably linked to the unique asymmetrical colouring of its snout The finback whale is a migratory species and is found in all the world’s oceans, from the polar to the tropical regions. The females are larger than the males and in the southern hemispheres they are slightly bigger than those in the northern hemisphere leading some scholars to believe they are a different subspecies. Their presence in the Mediterranean has been estimated at around 4,000 – 5,000, and they seem to be genetically distinguishable from those in the Atlantic. This is therefore a residential population. As it is a pelagic species, it usually lives in deep waters although it sometimes comes close to the coast. Although isolated whales may sometimes be sighted, it is actually a social species and usually lives in small groups composed of 2-7 individuals. Sometimes up to more than 100 whales may group together. Like other whales, it is able to produce loud vocalisations, which are probably the most powerful sounds made by a living being. Its acoustic repertoire includes sounds of such a low frequency that man cannot hear them, with impulses between 40 – 80 Hz, which they probably use for short-distance communication, and vocalizations with an even lower frequency, around 20 Hz, for long-distance communication. This species is also able to produce irregular rumbles that always have a frequency below 30 Hz, which are probably connected to situations involving danger or annoyance, for example if boats come too close , and dry short sounds which are probably not real vocalizations by the animal but hydrodynamic sounds produced by swimming rapidly, when hunting fish in particular. The finback whale’s reproductive cycle lasts two years, with a gestation of 11 months. At birth the baby is 6 metres in length and weighs almost two tonnes. It drinks 100 litres of milk a day and grows at the incredible speed of 60 kg in weight and 3 cm in length a day. By the time it is weaned it is 11 metres in length and weighs over 13 tonnes. It reaches sexual maturity when it is 6 – 12 years old, is fully mature at the age of 25 – 30 and can live to more than ninety.

Whale hunting
Man has been hunting different whale species for centuries. The Eskimos began hunting cetaceans thousands of years before the western world. Whale hunting was already widespread in Europe in the ninth century, especially in the Basque countries in the Bay of Biscay, the reproduction zone of the right whale (balaenidae). As hunting techniques were developed, in particular by the Dutch, intensive development of whale hunting in Europe resulted in such a rapid decline of many species that the numbers of the right whale hunted along the western European coasts decreased considerably; as a consequence, by the sixteenth century whale hunters were already looking for new hunting areas in the Arctic. Once the schools of North Atlantic right whales had been depleted in the Arctic, they went on to wipe out the whale populations in Greenland and the Americans hunting in the Bering Sea decimated their presence. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the American arctic zones had also been depleted so hunting began in pelagic zones, far off the coast; this meant that for the very first time, whale populations in the ocean were being affected. Hunting then moved to the southern hemisphere, where, once again the populations of whales in the southern hemisphere were decimated. Whale hunting techniques, which had basically remained unchanged for centuries, were finally revolutionized when sailing vessels with a high deck that were forced to use smaller vessels to hunt the whales, were replaced by small steam-powered whalers with harpoons. The possibility of blowing up a whale carcass using a compressor so it would float meant it was possible to cover greater distances when hunting. Until then, hunting had been limited to a short distance from the coastal points where the carcasses were processed into oil and other products but they could now go more than 100 miles off the coast, dragging the floating beasts behind them. Hunting therefore moved to the Antarctic where considerable and still undisturbed populations of local whales were to be found and shore stations were set up on the Antarctic islands. In the South Atlantic the humpback whale population was decimated so the whalers decided to focus on even bigger species, such as the finback whale and the blue whale. Finally, the creation of floating production stations on vast vessels that were especially equipped to be able to transform the carcasses into oil and flesh made it possible to go even further out to new zones at sea. This marked the beginning of the extermination of the whales. During the following decade, beginning in 1926, the first pelagic whaler was launched (the mother ship for production, able to assist all the smaller hunting vessels), which was soon followed by countless more, thus resulting in the literal collapse of whale populations. Oil production grew so rapidly that by the 1930s the price had dropped dramatically and the companies decided to forbid fishing for a year so the prices would go back up. However, after the end of World War II, great industrial demand resulted in renewed, extremely short-sighted hunting. It has been calculated that between the 1950s and 1960s at least 30,000 specimens of finback whale alone were killed each year. This thus resulted in the rapid decimation of the animals, which was such that the entire hunting industry underwent a crisis. Many companies closed, nearly all production stations were abandoned and countless ocean whalers were put out of commission. At this point the whale population worldwide was in extreme danger. In 1986 an International whaling moratorium was introduced and in 1994 a whale sanctuary was created in the Antarctic Ocean. Nevertheless, under the pretence of scientific research today some nations still continue to hunt countless numbers of many species of large cetaceans, whales and finbacks.

Numbers today throughout the World and in the Mediterranean
In the early 1900s it is estimated that the population was around 500,000 while today the number has fallen to 40,000 in the northern hemisphere and just over 15,000 in the southern hemisphere. There are around 5000 specimens of finback in the Mediterranean, most of which are concentrated in the central and western basins. In Italian seas it is more common in the Ligurian Sea, around Corsica and in the northern part of Sardegna, especially during the summer. It is less common in the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Sea, rare in the Strait of Sicily, and even rarer in the Adriatic.

Other threats to survival
The vast dimensions of this animal, at least for the adult, protect it from attacks from the main marine predators, with the rare exception of killer whales. The true enemy of this species has always been man. Indeed, man is still responsible for the death of countless whales, even in the Mediterranean, as a result of various mechanisms other than hunting. For example, collisions with fast ships that hit the whales, sometimes dragging them for kilometres and causing their death. Even in the Mediterranean the route of high-speed ferryboats between Corsica, Sardegna and the continent appears to be causing incidents of this kind, although it is difficult to quantify them.