Posted by: suekenney | August 14, 2011

The Big and the Small of It, part 1

Blue Whale

Image by Travis S. via Flickr

Little Owen went to the aquarium with his grandfather.  In the Hall of Marine Mammals, a life-size model of a blue whale was on display – not hanging from the ceiling, but supported on a small forest of poles just above a shallow platform running the full length of the hall.  There were models of several other whales, and also dolphins and seals, walruses and sea otters, and other creatures – some sitting or lying next to the blue whale, some hanging suspended over it, as if swimming around it.

“Wow, Gramps!” Little Owen exclaimed.  “What’s that really, really big one?”

“That’s a blue whale, Owen,” his grandfather said.  “It’s the biggest animal in the whole world.”

“Really, Gramps?  How big is it?”

“Well, some can grow to be one hundred feet long.”

“Wow!  That’s really, really big!”  Little Owen grabbed his grandfather’s hand even tighter and pulled toward the tail of the blue whale model.  “Let’s walk how long it is, okay, Gramps?”

“All right, Owen.”

They walked the full length of the model blue whale, from its massive flukes to the huge mouth, slightly agape to show the baleen plates inside.  Little Owen took two or three steps to every one of his grandfather’s long strides, and sometimes skipped to catch up.  They stopped once so Little Owen could more closely look at the model of a manta ray, and again to stare at the walrus model.

Size comparisons: blue whale, human, brachiosaurus, giraffe

When they reached the mouth, Little Owen turned and looked back.  “That was a long way, Gramps,” he declared.  “Is it really the biggest animal?”

“Yes, Owen, it is – even bigger than an elephant or a giraffe.”

“What about dinosaurs?  They’re pretty big, right, Gramps?”

“Well, yes, but still not as big as a blue whale.  Not even a tyrannosaurus rex, or an apatosaurus, or a diplodocus was as big as a blue whale.”

Little Owen contemplated the gigantic model briefly.  He pointed to the mouth.  “Look, Gramps, it’s even got big teeth!”

His grandfather chuckled and said, “Well, not exactly – at least not like our teeth.  Those are called baleen plates, and they’re a bit like the strainer your mommy uses when she’s draining spaghetti.  The whale swallows or sucks in huge amounts of water, then pushes it back out with its tongue.  The water goes out, but leaves behind little animals that were in the water. The whale then swallows those little animals.”

Little Owen wrinkled up his nose.  “That’s weird.  What kind of animals?  Bunnies?  Squirrels?”

His grandfather smiled.  “Most bunnies and squirrels won’t be swimming in the middle of the ocean, where the whale likes to feed.  No, the whale is looking for something even smaller.”

(To be continued…)

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