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Project title or topic of activity

A Whale of a Tail!

Author(s): Stephanie Callimanis, David Priniski

Date: Spring 2000


Summary of Activity
50-100 words

This activity is a two-day lesson plan designed to educate students about whales and whale conservation. The activity ends with the class adoption of a whale. There are two activities planned for each day. On the first day, students will be given a general background on whales and shown an introductory video. Then they will do a hands-on activity that helps them understand research identification; whale's tails are like human fingerprints. Then they will do an activity with echolocation to show how whales communicate in the wild. On the second day, the class will learn about extinction and then write letters to whale sanctuaries and conservation organizations. At the end of the lesson, the class will choose a whale to adopt from the International Wildlife Coalition.


Grade levels

grades 4-7 and class size 16-30

General description or introduction
The scientific principles that the activity is founded on.

This activity focuses on wildlife conservation issues. Students will become curious about whales after receiving some interesting information and seeing footage of whales on the video. They will get to work as individuals and as a team to discover what it might be like to be a whale conservationist. By writing letters and adopting a whale, students will feel connected to the issue and will be motivated to preserve ocean life.

Background information

CLASSIFICATION OF HUMPBACK WHALE: Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Cetacea Family: Balaenopteridae Genus: Megaptera Species: noveaeangliae -All mammals give birth to live young, thermoregulate (keep their internal body temperatures stable as outside conditions vary), have mammary glands, and hair. -Other animals in the Cetacea order include more whales, porpoises, and dolphins. There are 90 species of cetaceans known to man. Cetaceans have a muscular tail with flukes, blubber for warmth and buoyancy. They are often hunted for this blubber, to be used by man for oil and soap. -There are two types of whales: Toothed and Baleen Toothed whales include Orcas, sperm whales, dolphins, and porpoises, etc. Toothed whales have one blowhole opening. They swallow food whole and mainly feed on fish, squid, seals, shark, otters etc. There are 80 species of toothed whales. Baleen whales include the humpback, fin, minke, blue, gray whales etc. There are 11 species of baleen whales known. Baleen whales filter feed using large keratin plates called baleen, which hang from the top of their mouths. Baleen is made of the same material as our hair and nails. They take large gulps of water, some even have folds in their throat to allow it to stretch while feeding, close their mouths and filter the water out through the spaces between plates of baleen. Left behind is the krill, plankton, shrimp, and squid, which can be scraped off the baleen by the whale's tongue. Baleen whales tend to make up most of the larger whales with the blue whale being the largest creature on earth.

GENERAL WHALE INFORMATION A. Migration of whales: Some whales are migratory and travel north and south to breed and give birth, while others are residential and remain in the same area to feed, mate, and give birth. Some travel in groups called pods, while others travel alone. Migratory patterns are unique to each species. B. Size: Cetaceans can range in size from a few feet and 100 pounds to 100 feet and 200 tons. Some species already weigh two tons at birth. c. Communication: Most whales have the ability to communicate with one another by echolocation, vocalizations, or displays out of, and under water. Whales use echolocation as sound that is composed of waves that can be emitted through the water. When these sound waves hit an object, they become interrupted and as a result, break up. On land, sound waves do not travel overly far due to the many objects (trees, buildings, walls) that potentially can block them. With oceans being so extremely vast, this enables sound emitted in the water to travel for some distance away. The paths of the sound waves can reach whales ranging a ways apart. d) Respiration: They breathe with lungs and use a blowhole with either one or two openings to breath. Some species can go over on hour without coming up for air. Cetaceans also have the ability to dive up to 7000 feet under water. They have collapsible lungs to deal with pressure changes and which helps keep nitrogen out of their bloodstreams. They have adapted lungs that store higher concentrations of oxygen than most mammals.

HUMPBACK FACTS -Baleen whales can be found in every ocean in the world. -One of the largest creatures on earth, weighing up to forty tons -Migrate in groups north and south along coastlines to feed, mate, and give birth -Exhibit social behaviors like spyhopping, lobtailing, breaching, singing, and tail slapping. Most photos are a result of one of these behaviors. -Humpback populations were dangerously low before laws on commercial and subsistence whaling were passed. Now populations are estimated at 40,000. -Still many problems facing humpback populations today-illegal hunting, over fishing, pollution, and a low reproduction rate. Like with many whales, females will only give birth to one well-developed calf after carrying for approximately one year. As a result of the birth rate, many of the species populations is at the mercy of Whalers. The process is simple; whalers harpoon the whales from a boat as taught by their native ancestors. Due to this exploitation, nearly all great whales can be classified as endangered.

TRACKING/IDENTIFYING WHALES IN THE WILD -Most whale species have a distinct feature that researchers utilize to track individual whales or groups of whales. Some examples- *Orcas-saddle behind the dorsal fin *Gray-lumps of barnacles on the front of their head *Humpbacks-white patterns on underside of tail flukes -Researchers use these distinctions to help understand family patterns as well as migratory patterns of whale groups. They can also more easily document which whales are appearing in what areas on an annual basis. The websites mentioned are a helpful guide to this outline and have many pictures, which would be useful in the lecture part of the activity.

EXTINCTION: The whaling industry, or the process of whaling, can cause serious ecological effects. The extinction of whales can result in a disturbance in species interactions of the aquatic environment. Just as humans rely on other species to survive, some marine species such as barnacles use the whale to survive. Extinction has serious and irreversible consequences. *For more detailed information or some good pictures of humpbacks, refer to websites listed.*

Credit for the activity

Tara Streu, Ecology 450, Fall 1999, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona Castro and Huber. Marine Biology,third edition. Publisher,McGraw-Hill Higher Education. Boston, 2000

Estimated time to do the activity

2 class periods of 50 minutes each (2 days)

Goals of Activity:

Goal A
This activity will build curiosity of marine life and understanding of whales.

Goal B
Students will be able to identify themselves as humans with the great whales; complex and critical thinking skills.

Goal C
Students will be exposed to the topic of whale conservation. By writing letters and adopting an animal, students will develop a personal connection with this issue.

Goal D
Students will be involved with their classmates and individually in learning more about whales.


National Science Education Standards. (NSES)

Two content standards that this lesson plan covers:

Standard 1
Students should develop the ability to do scientific inquiry and build an understanding of scientific inquiry: A. Ask questions about objects, organisms, and events in the environment. (As pertained to the video) B. Plan and conduct simple investigations. (Echolocation activity/ tail identification) C. Use data to construct reasonable explanation. (Understanding the relation between human and whale identification) D. Communicate investigations and explanations. (Writing letters to whale sanctuaries allows the students to express their ideas after learning about whale conservation/extinction.)

Standard 2
Students should develop an understanding of characteristics of organisms, life cycles of organisms, and organisms and environments: A. Life cycles-organisms have basic needs for optimal survival: birth, development, reproduction and death. Many characteristics are inherited and many are individual. (The introduction on whales combined with the information from the video.) B. Organisms and the environment-All animals rely on other plants and animals. All organisms cause change in their environment. Humans depend on both natural and constructed environments. (conservation and extinction and extinction discussion)


Materials Needed

Materials for a class of 30:
Day 1: Tail Identification Activity: *30 blank papers cut into the shape of a humpback whale tail. Refer to websites listed to see the general shape. *1 long piece of paper with 30 whale tail outlines (for 30 students) of the same shape and size as the students whale tail outlines. Students will be placing their drawings in these spaces. Decorate with an underwater theme if time permitting. *Markers or crayons *Scotch tape *Inkpad-washable Video: *"In the Company of Whales" - this can be found at many video stores or ordered off Echolocation Activity: *Website:

Day 2: Letter Writing Activity: *paper *pencils *envelopes *stamps *
Addresses: 1. Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary P.O. Box 1340 Santa Cruz, CA 95061
2. National Ocean Service 1305 East West Highway Silver Springs, MD 30910
Adopt a Whale Activity: *Adoption Fee: $18.00 *


Engage: Introduction Activity: Educator assesses how much the students know prior to the lesson: *Administer a series of questions inquiring what the class knows about whales. In doing this, the educator can get an idea of what direction he/she can present the material. How much do the students know about whales? Extinction? Endangered Species? What they can do as the future generation? Scientist Identification of Whales? This will get the kids involved in beginning to critically think about various marine concepts. This a) helps the students to gain excitement about the material, b) the educator to know where to direct his/her attention, and finally c) creates the most efficient learning environment for the students.

WHALE IDENTIFICATION ACTIVITY PREPARATION: 1. Paper should be cut into shape of whale's flukes. 2. Long paper should also be cut and HUNG UP (on a wall in the classroom at a height where the students can reach it) with adequate space for the drawings and student fingerprints.

VIDEO PREPARATION: 1. The video should be edited to the selected parts. (Whale tracking section)


DAY 2, EXTINCTION: 1. Information (see background information) on extinction should be prepared for class presentation. 2. Information on the individual whales for adoption should be reviewed and ready for presentation. (consult website: Additional addresses for local marine organizations and sanctuaries should be found, if desired. (

Step-by-Step Procedure for the Activity

Day 1:
Introduction: First ask students questions about whales. See how much they know and adjust the lecture part of the activity according to their knowledge. Use pictures taken off the web pages to give them a visual aid while giving them the general information about whales. Video: Play a few minutes of the video to get students excited about the activity. Ask the class a few simple questions about what they saw in the video.

Questions: What are the two types of whales that exist today? (Baleen and Toothed) -What are some of their differences? (Presence or absence of baleen plates, teeth and skull shapes) -What types of animals are whales? (Mammals) -Are they related to us? (Yes) -What are the three main characteristics of mammals? (Homeotherms, give birth to live young, nursing offspring, hair)

Whale Identification: First ask: -How do we recognize each other as humans? -How might scientist identify us? -What are some characteristics of ourselves that identify us as humans? Next, pass out the blank whale tails. Ask students to draw whatever they wish for a pattern. As they finish, have students place their drawings, side by side on the larger piece of paper. Have each student also place their fingerprint next to their drawing. Ask students to look closely at each other's drawings and fingerprints. What do they see? Does everyone's fingerprint look the same? Do all the tails look the same? The students should discover that everyone has a unique fingerprint, just like every whale tail has a unique pattern. Explain that in nature these patterns show up as white markings under the humpback's tail. Make sure students understand that these markings are how researchers tell individual humpbacks apart, just like a detective can identify individual humans through fingerprinting.

Return to the Video: Now show students the five-minute part in the movie where researchers are tracking and identifying humpbacks. Tell the students that they too can be whale researchers. Introduction to Whale Communication: *Describe the concepts of echolocation. Ask questions gaining their previous knowledge.

Echolocation Activity: First ask: -How do humans communicate? -How do whales communicate? *Have students place hands on their throat. *Instruct students to say: "Whales use echolocation to find things in the ocean." *Ask them: "What do you feel?" *Explain to the class that when they speak the vibrations that they feel in their throat produce sound waves. The sound waves then travel from through the air to their ears. *The class the diagram of echolocation provided off of the website. Discuss what types of objects the whale in the picture might find in the ocean.

Day 2:
Extinction: *Address information/concepts concerning extinction. *Explain to the class that each individual will be able to now write to a whale sanctuary addressing their concerns for the protection of whales. Have students think about the concepts they have learn and implement them into their letters: *Ask: -Does the extinction of whales directly affect the lives of other marine species? How? Have a discussion on some of the issues that students may want to address in their letters. Allot 20-25 minutes for individual brainstorming and writing time. Pass out the envelopes to the students. Write the school's address on the board. Tell them they may pick any of the locations to send their school addressed letters. Give each student a stamp to put on their letter and tell them to give all of the letters to you. Make sure that they are doing most of the writing, thinking, addressing, and stamping for sense of individual accomplishment.

Adopt a whale activity: Inform the class that that they will be adopting a whale. *As a class: *read through as a class the descriptions and characteristics of the whales up for adoption. *choose the type of whale that they want (In doing this, you as the educator should assess how much they have learned through the discussion concerning what physical characteristics they want in the class whale.)

Images, work sheets, additional web pages


Items for discussion or conclusion

1st question

How are we related to whales?

2nd question
Why is it important to study these animals? What other animals have distinct markings? Why?

3rd question
In what ways do humans communicate? How else do whales comminucate?

4th question
What types of things can humans do to preserve the whales' natural environment and to ensure that they don't go extinct?


The success of the lesson plan can be assessed during and after the activities. *If the students are showing interest and are asking questions about whales and conservation during the lesson, it means that the activities provoked an interest in marine conservation. *If the students are working well with each other in groups and are helping each other during the identification and letter writing activities, the goal of group support and cooperation has been met. *If the students participate in the echolocation activity: question/answer and the throat activity, your goal of identifying humans with whales has been met. Possibly if you are not sure if they grasped the concept, have them explain it to you. If you select one student to explain it successfully, this reveals that she or he understands the concept, and is perhaps explaining it to other that do not understand. At times, knowledge can sink in more concretely when it is explained from peer to peer, instead of teacher to student. *The adoption of the class whale will be a useful tool to measure student conception and interest about whale conservation. The materials that the class receives from the International Wildlife Coalition (certificate, photographs, maps and stickers) will help evoke student interest in the weeks following the activity.

Beyond the Activity
Further activities which relate to and extend the complexity of the experiment.

*To expand on the whale identification activity, the class could discuss which other animals, on both land and in the sea, have distinctive markings and why them have them. *To further explore the echolocation activity, the students can do experiments on echoes and sound waves. They can play with different types of sound in different land environments to help them understand the difference in sound waves on land and in water. *To expand on the topics of human-whale interaction and conservation, students can also create a petition to send to organizations urging them to protect whales. This will also help introduce them to political activism. *If possible, the class can also attend a whaling museum to educate them on the history of whaling and the importance of conservation. *The class can discuss the necessity of whale products used in the past and today. *To go deeper into the ecology issue, the class can construct a timeline of whale population change to help them understand the consequences of whaling and how it has affected the whale population.

Web Resources
A web address with information on the topic of the activity.

Web Address

Additional References

Cousteau, Jacques. 1985. The Ocean World. Abrams Press, New York.