If you’ve managed to go to the Whales|Tohorā exhibition here at Te Papa then you’ll have come across the pieces of baleen.
Some whales have teeth – others have baleen. Baleen sort of looks like bristley paintbrushes hanging down either side in a whale’s mouth. It acts like a big sieve or tea strainer. Baleen whales scoop tiny organisms like krill and copepods in mouthfuls along with sea water. They force the sea water out of their mouths through the baleen leaving the prey behind.
The whales then use a combination of their tongues, sucking action and possibly some rinsing with sea water to dislodge the prey from the baleen (its hairy on the inside and the prey gets caught) before swallowing.
The colouration of the baleen depends on the type of whale it is – the blue whale’s is almost black.
Our pygmy right whale’s baleen is creamy white on the inside, dark grey on the outside with a stripe of creamy white along the top. Its beautiful.