Cetaceans are a widely distributed and diverse group of aquatic mammals comprising of whales, dolphins and porpoises. Cetaceans are further grouped into the Odontocetes (toothed whales), and the Mysticetes (baleen whales) based primarily on their feeding habits. Toothed whales have conical teeth and feed largely on fish and marine invertebrates, while baleen whales have bristles made of keratin instead of teeth and filter feed largely on krill. Baleen whales, and their ocean habitat, have been brought into the limelight for their size, behavior, and appearance, global distribution, and the fact that many were brought near to extinction by commercial whaling. One of the products sought after during commercial whaling was the baleen plates. Baleen is also sometimes known as whalebone. Baleen grows from the gum of the jaw, and will reach maximum length during adulthood, which can be up to a few meters in length! Initially baleen did not have a use, but once the qualities of baleen were discovered the price rose and many products were made from baleen. Baleen is a flexible horn-like material made from keratin, and is comprised of three layers. The inner layer is keratin tubules, and both sides are a flat layer of keratin. The advantages of baleen as a material are that it is springy and elastic, lightweight, and can be shaped into any design using heat and retains its shape after cooling. The most popular use of baleen was for corset strips, but it has also been pressed in a metal mould to make medallions and reliefs, some of which were painted black to resemble ebony. Baleen was also used as a veneer for frames and cabinets, as well as in umbrellas, fans, and knife handles. Today, plastic or elastic metal alloys have replaced many items that were once made from baleen. Baleen whales that we can find in Plettenberg Bay include the resident Bryde’s whale, the southern right whale, and the humpback whale.


Written by: Minke Witteveen


For further reading:

  • Lauffenburger, J.A. 1993. Baleen in museum collections: Its sources, uses, and identification. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 32: 213-230.
  • Rijkelijkhuizen, M. 2009. Whales, walruses, and elephants: Artisans in ivory, baleen, and other skeletal materials in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Amsterdam. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 13: 409-429.
  • Thomas, P.O., Reeves, R.R. and Brownell, Jr., R.L. 2015. Status of the world’s baleen whales. Marine Mammal Science 32: 682-734.


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