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[Opinion] Korean Gray Whale

Posted January. 10, 2008 05:39,   


“The Tale of Yeonorang and Seonyeo,” which is included in “Suijeon,” or “Tales of the Bizarre” from ancient Goryeo Dynasty, is Korea’s only folktale about the sun god. According to legend, in the fourth year of Shilla King Adala’s rule (A.D. 157), Yeonorang and Seonyeo, a couple living on the shore of the East Sea, got carried by a rock and arrived on a Japanese island to become king and queen there. Upon their arrival, an extraordinary event took place: the sun and moon stopped shining and rocks that sailed to Japan were found to be gray whales.

Of course, it is very unlikely that anyone can ride on the back of a whale across the ocean. The tale, however, tells one thing very clearly: many gray whales used to live off the coast of the Korean Peninsula. One can easily mistake a gray whale for a rock because of their resemblance. The body of a gray whale can grow up to 16 meters and weigh 45 tons, with a dark gray color and covered with barnacles. From a distance, a whale might look exactly like a rock. Koreans call them “ghost whales” because they disappear before you know it when they expose their heads between coastal rocks.

The gray whale, however, has not lived up to its nickname. Though smart and big, the mammal is afraid of people. Its official name is Korean gray whale, the only one out of more than 100 types of whales to have Korean in the name. Large whales are found far out at sea, but the mid-sized Korean gray whale tends to swim along the shore at a depth of around 50 meters because of a reliance on shrimp, which live in the mud of the seashore.

A whale think tank at the National Fisheries Institute has offered a reward of 10 million won to anyone who discovers and reports a Korean gray whale. Thousands of Korean gray whales were captured during Japanese rule of the Korean Peninsula, so they faced virtual extinction in the 1970s. The Korean government has urged the public to show more interest in saving the mammal and designated the gray whale in 1962 as Natural Treasure No. 126, but this has proven fruitless. According to a recent academic survey, some 120 Korean gray whales live on the Sakhalin shoreline. We hope to see these “elusive ghost whales,” which have been friends to Koreans for more than 10,000 years, once more on the shores of the Korean Peninsula in the near future.

Jeong Seong-hee, Editorial Writer, shchung@donga.com