The whales of Nha Trang

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A visit to the Nha Trang Institute of Oceanography museum gives tourists a close up look at the whales Vietnamese fishermen worship as deities

The giant skeleton of a 19-meter-long humpback whale, larger than a city bus, greets visitors at the Nha Trang Institute of Oceanography.

Whales have existed for more than 50 million years. But in mankind's short time on the planet, hunting pushed the most magnificent of mammals to the brink of extinction before conservation efforts in the 1960s.

A walk through the Nha Trang Institute of Oceanography Museum's whale section is a humbling experience and is as good a testament as any to the creature's majesty and the need to protect it.

The museum greets entrants with the giant skeleton of a 19- meter-long humpback whale, larger than a city bus. This particular skeleton was found 1.2 meters underground in 1994 by residents digging a ditch in the northern province of Nam Ha, present-day Nam Dinh Province. The site was four kilometers from the sea.

The museum also displays a mural of the largest whale skeleton kept in Vietnam. The 20 meter-long specimen was discovered in 1850 and is currently preserved at the Van Thuy Tu Whale Temple in the central town of Phan Thiet.

Unlike many other peoples, Vietnamese fishermen do not kill whales; they worship them as gods.

Dozens of temples across the country are dedicated to worshipping whales that have died of natural causes near the coast. In Vietnam's fishing culture, whales are considered sacred and many legends tell stories of whales saving fishermen by helping push their boats through rough seas.

It's also said that whale gods can calm turbulent waters to allow fishermen passage home during storms.

Whenever whales arrive, dead or alive, local fishermen believe they bring luck and safety at sea. When they see a dead whale, they pull the carcass ashore and hold an elaborate burial ceremony. Several years later, they exhume the skeleton and carry it to a shrine where it is worshiped ever after.

Whale burial ceremonies regularly attract thousands of people.

The origins of the tradition are hazy, but Vietnam's animist culture is at least a few millennia old, so the beliefs could be as old as the most ancient Vietnamese peoples.

Dozens of Vietnamese festivals worship the whale god in all of Vietnam's coastal regions. In Vung

Tau, a pagoda dedicated to whales hosts an annual festival in the eighth lunar month.

In Da Nang, a centuries-old whale festival sees village elders present peace offerings to the whale while an oration is read out.

Founded in 1762, the Van Thuy Tu Whale Temple in Phan Thiet houses an enormous preserved whale fin skeletal structure that is over 120 years old, 22 meters long and weighs over 65 tons. According to tradition at Thuy Tu, the fisherman who sees a whale washed ashore first is considered the creature's eldest child and must hold a solemn funeral and mourn his "father" for three years.

Can Gio District on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City also holds an annual whale festival.

Back at Nha Trang's institute, apart from skeletal structures and images, the museum also projects films about the Humpback, the North Pacific Right and Bryde whales.

The museum is full of other interesting sites exemplifying all walks of life in the oceanic world.

A live Blacktip reef shark, a Leopard shark, Scorpion fish, Angel fish, Picasso fish, Anemones, an endangered Hawksbill turtle, a green turtle, a seal and a Dugong skeleton are among the institute's more moving galleries.

The museum also includes a fascinating exhibit displaying the history of traditional Vietnamese seafaring with examples of both old and modern fishing boats and tools.

Nha Trang Institute of Oceanography is located at 1 Cau Da Street, next to Cau Da Port, about five kilometers south of Nha Trang Town in Khanh Hoa Province. Entrance tickets cost VND15,000 (US$0.8) each.

Visit the museum and do your part to save the whales, which very well may be extinct in our lifetimes.

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