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The fishing villages along Vietnam’s southern and central coasts are home to over 1,000 shrines honoring dead whales or marine mammals. These places of worship are vital to the people in these communities. But scientists are also interested in them. Glass-enclosed 65-foot baleen whales from centuries past, along with many other preserved sea creatures, offer clues to what ocean life was like hundreds of years ago. These ancient whale temples offer hope not only to local fishermen but also to explorers. Find out what information these skeletons hold and what we can learn from them.
About the ancient whale temples in Vietnam
Thousands of whale temples, shrines, altars, statues and idols are surrounded by 2,000 miles of Vietnamese coastline. These sacred temples differ from the typical ones. Whale bones and other whale bones are scattered around the temples or placed inside. Temples range from large, intricate structures to old converted fishing boats or simple tombstones. When local fishermen or others in the community come across a deceased whale, they bring it with them to be buried or preserved. Some of them are so big that they have to use motor boats to pull the carcasses ashore.
The Van Thuy Tu Temple is the largest whale temple in Vietnam and houses over 500 whale skeletons, including one that is 20m long. Some of the whales are over 100 years old. The temple was built in 1762 and is believed to be the oldest in the area. Some other notable ancient whale temples are Lang Ong Nam Hai Temple and Lang Tan Temple.
Whale Worship: What is Whale Religion in Vietnam?
Whale worship is a Vietnamese folk religion called Cá Ông. People in coastal villages pray and make offerings in whale temples for safe passage. Cá Ông is a whale spirit who blesses them with safe voyages and bountiful catches. These fishing communities have been building shrines and temples to worship whales for at least two centuries. An 18th-century warlord was rescued by two whales, who carried him to safety during battle. When he became emperor, he declared the whales sacred and ordered his people to worship them as gods.
What is the purpose of studying ancient whale bones?
In addition to cultural history, these ancient whale temples are a treasure trove of natural history. Many marine mammal researchers lack funds to continue their studies, so these Vietnamese temples are extremely useful for their research. Many of the temples house not only whales but also other whales such as dolphins and porpoises. Scientists are using these hundred-year-old marine mammal bones to better understand the historical diversity and distribution within the region. For example, some species, like the Omura whale, were not known to inhabit the waters near Vietnam. But their bones are found in the country’s temples, meaning researchers can add another species to the area’s records.
What can scientists learn from the bones in ancient whale temples?
Scientists can gain much insight into the historical distribution of whale, dolphin and porpoise species in the region’s waters. You can also spot species that once lived in the area but are now locally extinct, such as the dugongs. The dugong is a marine mammal and a cousin of the manatee. The newest dugong skeletons in Vietnam date from the early 2000s, meaning their local extinction is only recent.
By analyzing these bone collections, they can reveal more about population abundance, biodiversity, and distribution.
Scientists have already spotted rare and endangered species such as the sperm whale in the area. With their typical research tactics, they could not detect this information. By collaborating with the community, they can gain more insight and fill the information gap around this part of the world. And above all, raise awareness of sustainable fishing methods. The work these researchers are doing is an excellent example of respect for cultural history while utilizing science for the direct benefit of the community and further study in marine mammalology.
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