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How Vietnam’s Historic Whale Temples Are Serving to Science

How Vietnam’s Historic Whale Temples Are Serving to Science

2022-09-19 23:48:29

This piece was initially printed in Hakai Magazine, a web-based publication about science and society in coastal ecosystems. It seems right here with permission.

The robust afternoon solar bears down on the coastal city of Can Thanh in southern Vietnam, however inside Lăng Ông Thủy Tướng—a single-story, pale-yellow constructing in town’s shoreline—it’s cool. Subtle daylight illuminates the primary corridor, and the air is laden with the woody aroma of burning incense. A lone man, more than likely a fisherman, enters the corridor, walks towards a 20-meter baleen whale skeleton displayed in a glass case, and folds his palms in deep reverence.

Lăng Ông Thủy Tướng—the temple to the god of the ocean—is one in all 1,000 or extra such shrines on Vietnam’s 3,260-kilometer shoreline. At these temples, which are available various sizes and configurations however all home whale bones, fishermen worship in hopes that their prayers will probably be carried to Cá Ông, the whale spirit, and they are going to be blessed with a protected fishing journey and a bountiful catch. Shut kinfolk of fishermen additionally go to to gentle candles, burn incense, and pray for the security of their beloved one, typically providing fruit and cash, hoping their prayers are heard.

For over two centuries, fishing communities alongside Vietnam’s central and southern coastlines have constructed locations of worship to honor the lifeless cetaceans washing up on their shores. From giant ornate buildings to easy graves with headstones to small picket shoebox-sized shrines bedecked with incense and flowers, these “whale temples” are a centuries-old a part of the nation’s cultural historical past, however additionally they home proof of its pure historical past. Because of this, Vu Lengthy, cofounder of the Ho Chi Minh City–based mostly Center for Biodiversity Conservation and Endangered Species (CBES), a grassroots wildlife conservation group additionally concerned with marine mammal analysis, is visiting Lăng Ông Thủy Tướng. For marine mammal researchers like Vu who’re confronted with extraordinarily restricted sources and an absence of funding, these whale temples—some holding dozens of skeletons—show a useful supply of data relating to the present and historic range and distribution of marine mammals in Vietnam. “Apart from being a singular facet of Vietnamese tradition, whale temples are a terrific supplementary supply of data for our analysis,” says Vu, who, alongside together with his staff at CBES, collects knowledge about marine mammals in Vietnam through boat-based surveys and by monitoring cetacean strandings.

Marine mammal researcher Vu Long studies marine mammals in the field, but also through the skeleton repositories at Vietnam’s whale temples.
Marine mammal researcher Vu Lengthy research marine mammals within the area, but in addition via the skeleton repositories at Vietnam’s whale temples. Courtesy the Heart for Biodiversity Conservation and Endangered Species

Vu sits outdoors the temple entrance with Lê Văn No, a 71-year-old retired fisherman who has served as a volunteer caretaker of the temple for over 20 years. Lê cleans the temple each day, and, together with others, decorates it for particular events, such because the annual Nghinh Ông (whale worship) competition celebrated within the eighth month of the lunar calendar.

Lăng Ông Thủy Tướng is among the nation’s older recognized temples, the unique shrine web site courting again to 1805, and Lê is keen to share the story of the whale behind glass, simply one of many dozens of skeletons related to this shrine. (The others are piled in one of many temple’s rooms or saved in one of many 17 coffin-like bins positioned at a close-by property.) “Native individuals discovered this whale with bullet wounds,” says Lê. “It was one other sufferer of the [Vietnam] conflict.”

He exhibits Vu a discolored black-and-white {photograph} from 1971 and recounts when the whale carcass was discovered floating within the waters close to the temple. Lê was solely 20 years outdated then however remembers that the lifeless animal—in regards to the size of 13 park benches—was too giant to be moved by human effort alone. So the neighborhood used a small motorboat to pull the carcass to the close by mangroves. It decomposed there for a number of months earlier than its bones have been moved to the temple, the place it turned a focus for worship.

In Da Nang, about 1,000 kilometers north of Can Thanh, 35-year-old fisherman Trần Văn Mùi, has prayed on the Vạn Nam Thọ temple since he was a toddler. In an earlier interview performed by Vu, he discovered that Trần’s religion within the miraculous powers of whales and whale temples was strengthened in 2005, when he and his fishing crew prevented a storm that the climate forecast had did not predict. At sea, Trần’s crew noticed a whale floor and head towards shore, a sighting they took as an omen from Cá Ông, the whale spirit. They sailed house sooner than deliberate. In doing so, Trần believes, they prevented the storm, and their lives have been saved.

In response to Vu, this profound religion within the mystical energy of whales might be traced again to a few completely different origin tales. One is rooted in Hinduism and one other in Buddhism, however the one that’s most generally believed in Vietnam comes from the nation’s historical past. Within the 18th century, Nguyễn Ánh, a robust warlord, was waging a 20-plus-year conflict in opposition to his enemies. On the verge of getting captured, he prayed to the gods for a solution to escape. At that second, two whales rose from the ocean and carried him and his flagship away from the enemy, thus guaranteeing his security. In 1802, Nguyễn Ánh turned the primary emperor of a unified Vietnamese kingdom, the precursor to trendy Vietnam. As a token of gratitude to the gods, Nguyễn Ánh declared that each one whales in Vietnamese waters have to be worshipped as gods.

The skeleton of a baleen whale takes center stage at the temple Lăng Ông Thủy Tướng in Can Thanh, Vietnam.
The skeleton of a baleen whale takes middle stage on the temple Lăng Ông Thủy Tướng in Can Thanh, Vietnam. Courtesy the Heart for Biodiversity Conservation and Endangered Species

In step with this historic story, fishermen take into account it their responsibility to deliver a whale they discover floating or catch by accident to shore and conduct a burial ceremony—on the seashore or in a devoted whale graveyard. After three years or so, they exhume the bones and switch them to the neighborhood’s whale temple. It’s a reverence akin to that proven for a father or mother or an elder. “When fishermen see a stranded whale, they imagine that the animal has chosen their village as its last resting place,” explains Vu. “They really feel honored and obligated to offer it a correct burial ceremony.”

Years, a long time, and in some locations even centuries of skeletons collected at temples have resulted in a treasure trove of details about Vietnam’s cetaceans, not simply whales. (If fishermen see a lifeless animal with a horizontal tail and a blowhole, they normally take into account it a whale. Because of this, the temples are likely to have a mixture of whale, dolphin, and porpoise bones.)

Vu, who has studied the marine mammals of Vietnam for a decade, is among the authors of a 2021 paper that highlights the wealth of data inside whale temples. He emphasizes the necessity for a multidisciplinary method—together with social scientists and cultural historians, for example—to learning them.

Over time, Vu and his staff have positioned greater than 200 temples. For his or her latest paper, they visited 18 whale temples on Vietnam’s central coast, the place they recognized and measured 140 marine mammal skeletons from 15 species. To find out the species, they examined the dentition and took 10 particular cranium measurements.

Some whale temples studied for the paper had acquired only a single carcass because the nineteenth century, others obtained a lifeless dolphin or whale each month, usually of differing species. A number of of the species they discovered within the temples weren’t seen on their boat surveys, explains Vu. One instance was the information poor Omura’s whale, a whale that was first described by Japanese scientists in 2003. Vu and his colleagues discovered two specimens of their whale temple survey. These finds introduced the species’ document in Vietnam to 5.

A lot to their shock, Vu and his coauthors additionally got here throughout three dugong skulls throughout their go to to 2 whale temples within the northern a part of the central coast. In latest occasions, the presence of dugongs has solely been confirmed in southwestern Vietnam and the Con Dao archipelago, positioned to the southeast of the nation. So this statement sheds new gentle on their historic distribution. They suppose the skulls date again to the Nineteen Nineties via to the early 2000s, indicating that the dugongs’ native extinction is latest. Vu additionally theorizes that the native extinction of dugongs was more than likely attributable to human actions like looking, by-catch, and the destruction of their seagrass habitats.

Emma Carroll, a whale researcher and an affiliate professor on the College of Auckland (Waipapa Taumata Rau) in New Zealand, says that “societies undergo from shifting baselines, the concept that what we see now could be regular, as there’s no collective reminiscence of the biodiversity that thrived even within the latest previous. The collections inside these temples are reminders of how a lot has modified, for instance, the shift in dugong distribution that was revealed [in Vu’s paper].”

She provides that the gathering of bones holds a singular archive of species range, inhabitants abundance, and distribution info that may be revealed with trendy genetic evaluation methods, however emphasizes that these research ought to solely occur with neighborhood assist and approval.

The whale worship house in Ben Tre, Vietnam.
The whale worship home in Ben Tre, Vietnam. Michael Habana Coronel/Shutterstock

Vu and his staff have continued documenting whale temples even after the publication of the paper. So far, they’ve recognized 25 cetacean species in whale temples, together with uncommon and endangered species like sperm whales. As compared, they’ve recognized solely 20 cetacean species through the stranding monitoring executed over the previous 5 years and simply three species of their boat-based surveys. These outcomes underscore the significance of whale temples as info storehouses about Vietnam’s cetaceans. Vu hopes that the temples will, in the long term, change into key facilities for interplay with fishermen and consciousness campaigns about sustainable fishing.

For now, Vu and his staff nonetheless have a whole lot of whale temples to doc. However they’re unfazed. By analyzing and courting the specimens present in these repositories, the researchers are assured of narrowing the knowledge gaps that exist round Vietnam’s marine mammal range and its distribution over time.

Again at Lăng Ông Thủy Tướng, as Vu and Lê chat, a pair of curious Vietnamese vacationers wander as much as the temple entrance. Lê slowly rises from his chair, and walks over to greet them and share whale worship tales with this keen, youthful viewers.

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