Whale exhibit visiting Calgary gets traditional Maori and Blackfoot blessings

A traditional Maori blessing ceremony was held today at Telus Spark to kick off the Whales Tohora exhibit from New Zealand.

Whales Tohora opens on Jan. 20 at Telus Spark and runs until June 20

A traditional Maori blessing ceremony was held today at Telus Spark to kick off the Whales Tohora exhibit from New Zealand. 0:39

Two traditional blessings were performed at Telus Spark on Friday — one Blackfoot and one Maori — to kick off the Whales Tohora exhibit from New Zealand, opening on Jan. 20.

The touring exhibit from The Museum of New Zealand has been on the road for 10 years, showcasing the remains of many species of cetaceans, which is the technical name for whales, dolphin and porpoises.

"You'll see 37 different species of cetaceans and those are real specimens, not casts," said Pat Stodart, the touring exhibition manager for Whales Tohora.

Members of the Whales Tohora exhibit, on tour from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, unload the skull of a female sperm whale in Calgary. The exhibit is at Telus Spark from Jan. 20 to June 20. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

The exhibit includes the 36-metre-long skeleton of a male sperm whale, a life-size replica of a blue whale's heart — large enough for an adult to walk around inside — and the remains of a female sperm whale dubbed ''Old Woman of the Sea" by the Maori — Indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. 

"She's an old female, you can see that she had broken ribs which have [healed], you can see that she's got arthritis," Stodart said. "You can see that shes got marks on her from the bends, diving too deep."

"We all get those too, but people don't think of these giant marine mammals suffering from the bends or arthritis, but they do."

2 traditional blessings a world apart

A Blackfoot smudge ceremony was performed to bless the whale remains, and a traditional Maori song was sung by members of the exhibit team.

Stodart said the Maori have lived in New Zealand for over 1,000 years and use the remains of beached whales to craft tools, weapons and personal adornments, adding any whales that become stranded on Maori land become property of the tribe.

A lize-size replica of a blue whale heart is part of the Whales Tohora exhibit which has been on tour from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa for 10 years. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

"Over that time there have been many, many whale strandings … and they have made use of that material and come to revere the whale as a great bounty for them," Stodart said.

Because many of the remains are from protected species, Stodart said the touring exhibit has been working closely with the Smithsonian Institute and the Royal Alberta Museum to get the proper certificates to keep the show on the road.

After 10 years of touring, Stodart said the exhibit is expected to greet its 3 millionth visitor while in Calgary.

Whales Tohora opens on Jan. 20 at Telus Spark and runs until June 20.

With files from Monty Kruger