Whale temples are unique repositories for understanding marine mammal diversity in Central Vietnam

Whale temples have amassed a sizeable number of specimens that have been used as a valuable source of information concerning marine mammals in Vietnam

Whale worshiping Tục thờ cá Ông” has been known as a particular folk belief of communities along the Vietnamese coast. Even though this belief has been around for a long time, its origin remains unknown. The fishing community believe that whale will save them from the perils of the sea and help them get back to the shore safely. Because of this belief, when a dead whale washes up on shore, the fishermen will be carefully buried it. After being buried for at least 03 years, the bones will be unearthed and preserved in the whale temple built at the heart of fishing villages along the Vietnamese coast. For a long time, whale temples have amassed a sizeable number of specimens that not only be a traditional culture of Vietnamese fishing communities, but also provide us a valuable source of information concerning marine mammals in Vietnam.  

Whale bones were stored in the glasses box

The lack of information regarding the distribution and abundance of marine mammals (whales, dolphins, porpoises, and dugongs) along the Vietnamese coast remains the challenge for conserving marine mammal species inhabiting Vietnamese waters from emerging anthropological threats. Our knowledge and information on cetaceans inhabiting Vietnamese waters is outdated, scattered, and inaccessible to policymakers, conservation practitioners, and the public. This absence of evidence-based knowledge also means that the conservation of cetaceans in Vietnam is largely driven by anecdotal information rather than science. 

The locations of whale temples visited during 2019 and 2022 survey
Hence, in August 2019, CBES collaborated with international organisations (e.g., Smith Sonian Institution, Estuary & Ocean Science Center) to survey several whale temples along the Vietnamese central coast and identified 15 marine mammal species. To continue that work, we conducted a field survey at the whale temples in southern Vietnam (South Central Coast and Mekong Delta) in July 2022. These records further underscore the importance of whale temples both as sources of reverent historical culture and important repositories of biodiversity data on former and current marine mammal distributions.

Our work was supported by the Biodiversity Information Fund for Asia (BIFA) from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). We planned to visit the remaining coast in the central of Vietnam to build comprehensive baseline data on marine mammals in Vietnamese waters.

Survey team at a whale teample of Binh Thuan province 2022 trip

Whale temple culture and marine mammal worship is a unique example of a cultural practice from interactions between marine mammals and humans in Vietnam for a long time. Sadly, this culture is fading away for many different reasons such as temples are moved or removed for infrastructure development projects, or the young people in the fishing villages move to  bigger cities. We hope that conservation efforts can take advantage of this already existing belief among artisanal fishers to promote the protection of marine ecosystems and aid in the establishment of sustainable development practices.