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Project title or topic of activity

Amazing Whales

Author(s): Alex Fernandez, Brad Lochridge, Angie Hofhine

Date: Spring 2000


Summary of Activity
50-100 words

Young children have an innate curiosity about the world around them. Why are leaves green? Why do some animals live in the water and some on land? Since science is the study of the world around us and children are tireless explorers of that physical world, science is a natural subject to teach young children. The goals of this lesson are to have the children discover the Amazing World of Whales. They will use any prior knowledge of the ocean to learn more and discover how whales live every day. They will incorporate the fundamentals of science to determine and understand whale communication by echolocation feeding habits, how they swim, and what is a whale.


Grade levels

Level of activities are oriented towards 3rd and 4th grades. Groups should be effective in Maximum sizes of 5 children per group and a Minimum of 3.

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

The activities will utilize critical thinking skills that will promote team work. Students will develop their own hypotheses and test them using a variety of materials and scientific principles. The students will be able to determine the best medium in which sound travels and why it benefits the whale. At the end of the lesson(s) they will be able to compare and contrast between whales and fish. They will also learn why whales have blubber. They will get to see for themselves how big an average size Orca is.

Background information

All whales belong to the order Cetacea, which comes from the Greek word Cetus, meaning whales. They are also classified as mammals, which means they nurse their young, have a four-chambered heart, seven cervical vertebrae, and they have hair, which constitutes only a few whiskers on whales. Because whales lack hair, which is used to help to keep mammals warm, they have evolved blubber. Blubber is just a thick layer of fat which helps to keep them insulated in the often cold ocean water. In the bowhead whale this blubber layer can be up to 20 inches thick because it lives in near freezing water. A dolphin of the other hand may only have a quarter inch of blubber because it lives in warmer water.

Like other mammals whales also give birth to live young and once they are born nursing begins. These babies, or calves, are not born with very much blubber so the milk that mothers feed their young is high in fat, about 40 percent. Whales also have lungs like other mammals and humans so they must come up to the surface to breathe. To help them inhale and exhale while at the surface they have a blowhole on top of their head, which acts like our nostrils. Whales look more like fish than other land mammals because they live in the water so they have adapted to live in that environment. Whales have a streamlined body like a torpedo or a submarine to help it swim faster. They have almost all the same bones that other mammals do, but the bones have been modified for other purposes. The front legs or arm bones have been modified into flippers for example. Most whales have lost all but small hind legs bone which are similar to bones found in terrestrial mammals.

The cetaceans can be further broken down into three suborders: archaeoceti, or ancient whales or extinct whales; odontoceti, or toothed whales; and mysticeti, or mustached or baleen whales. In odontocetes all species have teeth, which is why they are called toothed whales. They feed primarily on schooling fish and squid. They also have a single blowhole, asymmetrical skulls, and they all echolocate.

Echolocating is when they send out high frequency sounds, and then use the sound waves that bounce back from an object to distinguish what the object is. Odontocetes include dolphins, porpoises, narwhals, orcas, beluga, and sperm whales, among others. Mysticetes, or as they are commonly called, baleen whales, use baleen to filter tiny animals, such as krill, out of the water. Baleen whales have a two-hole blowhole, and a symmetrical skull. Baleen whales are assumed not to use echolocation because they lack the melon. The baleen that they use to feed is made of keratin, like in human hair and nails. The Whales filter out thousands of tiny animals (plankton) at once using their baleen. They open their mouths and take in a mouth full of water. Then they partially close their mouth, push the water out over the baleen plates, and licking off the prey from the baleen with their tongues.

There are three type of baleen whales, and they are defined by their feeding techniques. Skimmers, like right whales and bowhead whales, swim along with their mouths open and their baleen plates exposed to capture prey. They catch mostly small, surface-dwelling plankton, that cannot escape the slow-moving whales. Gulpers, or rorqual whales, like humpback and blue whales, have throat grooves that allow them to take big gulps of water, which they force back through the baleen trapping their prey inside. The gray whale is a gunker, the only one of its kind. It swims along the bottom on its side and vacuums up mud and water. It then filters the sediment through its baleen, to strain out the crustaceans from the mud. These whales leave huge craters behind where they have been feeding.

Credit for the activity

Baleen Activity Mrs. Laura Bourguet, a teacher in Tucson AZ
Make a Whale, Fish vs. Whale, Background information Diane Claridge, Kenneth C. Balcomb, III, Kim Parsons;
Blubber Activity Janice Van Cleave's Oceans for every kid Chapter 23 ‘Ocean Giant' Blubber Mitt Activity New England Aquarium Central Wharf Boston, MA 02110

Estimated time to do the activity

The activities should take one to two hour on two different days.

Goals of Activity:

Goal A
To determine the differences between whales and fish.

Goal B
Determine why water is best for sound conduction.

Goal C
Explain the three different ways that baleen whales feed.

Goal D
Explain how whales swim and breathe in an aquatic environment.


National Science Education Standards. (NSES)

Two content standards that this lesson plan covers:

Standard 1
One content standard addressed in the lesson plan attempts to explain and provide an example as to why sound travels better in the medium of water versus air. Such an example of the physics and mechanics of sound, will attempt to show why the use whistles and clicks under water can travel further than they would in open air. An exercise using sound devices in the ambient air and one using a tube of water and a tuning fork will demonstrate how sounds of different frequencies can be heard in water and the capability of the sound traveling further.

Standard 2
Another standard of the lesson plan will help the students to distinguish between different types of whales. Students will participate in new exercises that will allow them to collaborate and use their cognitive skills to figure out how whales eat, reasons for certain behavior, and communication habits. The students will be able to differentiate between the eating habits of baleen whales and toothed whales, and what they eat. The students will be able to compare and contrast, swimming habits, and mammalian traits of the whales in relation to other sea life and land mammals.


Materials Needed

Fish vs. Whale

  • Large sheet of paper or cardboard
  • Markers

Echolocation I

  • Red construction paper Sheet of cardboard plastic bags colored markers
  • Clackers or noise makers

Echolocation II

  • 2 Glass tubing approx. 2 to 3 ft long tuning fork

Baleen Activity:

  • Broom (straw or plastic)
  • Bucket large enough to broom set on
  • Small containers krill and/or small plastic fish
  • Sand

Make a Whale:

  • 2-10' x 25' rolls of black plastic sheeting, at least or thicker 3 mil. (from hardware store in the paint dept.)
  • 1 roll of duct tape
  • scissors
  • Marker that will write on the plastic sheeting box fan or a leaf blower also works well paper large enough to make small posters
  • masking tape
  • butcher paper

Blubber Activity:

  • Two 7oz (210ml) paper cups
  • Cotton balls
  • 2 bulb-type thermometers
  • 3/4 cup (188ml) cooking oil
  • timer

Blubber Mitt Activity:

  • 1 cup solid shortening
  • 2 zip-top sandwich bags
  • Duct tape


Engage: Students should work in groups of 3 to 4 for this exercise. Students should have available to them: markers, poster board, ruler. They should make two circles approximately 18 to 24 inches in diameter. Each circle should be labeled as follows: Whales, Fish. The overlapping section will demonstrate what the two have in common. They should work together and write down each idea or fact they know about each animal. They will be able to compare and contrast important characteristics of the whale and other marine life. By writing down their intuitive ideas, they will prepare themselves for upcoming lessons and can use their chart as a reference for other activities. They should be allowed to continue to write down any new found ideas or concepts. Here are some Questions to help them if they get stuck; How do whales breathe? How do whales swim? How are whales born? What and how do whales eat? Where do whales live? How big do different whales grow? How do whales stay warm? What is blubber? How is a whale a mammal? Is a dolphin a whale? Why? Why do whales move where they live? How big are different calves at birth? How does the mother care for her calf? How do whales communicate? What are the names of different parts of a whale? What are the different parts used for? Why is a whale's temperature always the same? Why is a whale not a fish? What is whaling? What are the different sounds whales make? Which whales have teeth? What do calves eat? What is the biggest animal that has ever lived on earth? How long can a whale stay underwater? What are groups of whales called?

Preparation: The instructor should prepare the class a few days before the class activities. Discussion of mammals and ocean life are highly recommended to begin though processes on how these animals live their everyday lives. Discussion incorporating students' prior knowledge should incorporate prior knowledge and scientific principles. One of the main discussion on how whales communicate in water and their sound travels, is highly recommended.

Step-by-Step Procedure for the Activity

Fish vs. Whale 1.
A large sheet of paper for each group with two over lapping circles already draw for the students 2. On top of one of the circles label it "Fish" 3. On top of the other circle label it "Whales" 4. If you want label the over lap part "What Fish & Whales Have In Common" 5. Have the students write their ideas on the paper in the appropriate circle Echolocation 1 6. Cut out two circle one larger than the other with the red construction paper 7. On the sheet of cardboard glue two circles next to each other but not touching 8. Put the sheet of cardboard on one side of the room and the students on the other side of the room 9. Have students try to figure out which circles is largest

Echolocation 2
1. Set up tube with water about three inches from the top 2. Hit a tuning fork and have children each listen closely near the fork as it enters the water.

Make a Whale:
1. Unfold 1 roll of sheeting and fold it in half lengthwise to measure 5' x 25'. 2. Do the same with the second roll and place it on top of the first sheeting. Make sure the folded sides are on the same side and all the ends and corners are even. 3. Tape the ends, corners, and sides (every 6') of both layers to the floor to hold them in place while you cut out the whale shape. 4. Cut out a side view of the whale freehand. Sketch it with chalk before you cut it. 5. Remove the scrap pieces from the whale after cutting. Unfold the whale and lay one layer on top of the other matching the ends very carefully. Tape the edges down to the floor and smooth out the whale as much as possible. 6. Have the students sit around the perimeter of the whale and help tape the edges together with the duct tape. Have them place about a 12" strip of tape, sticky side up, under the bottom layer, covering just half of the tape. Fold the other half of the tape up and over the top edge of the top layer. Press the tape down and smooth itout. BE SURE TO HAVE THE STUDENTS OVERLAP EACH PIECE OF TAPE ABOUT1" OVER THE PREVIOUS TAPE TO MAKE SURE THERE ARE NO GAPS OR HOLES AROUND THE EDGES. 7. Continue taping all around the edges, LEAVING A 2 FOOT OPENING AT THE FLUKE OR TAIL END OF THE WHALE FOR THE FAN. 8. Tape the whale opening to the fan. Turn the fan on high and inflate the whale. After the whale is inflated, check for leaks around the taped area. Place a 5' piece of tape, in the vertical position, halfway along the side of the whale. This tape will provide the reinforcement for the opening, or door, in the side of the whale. Cut a slit down the middle of the tape about 4*'. Reinforce both ends with the duct tape so as to prevent further tearing. 9. You may place a large trash bag over the opening to prevent some of the air from escaping. 10. You can make flippers and a dorsal fin out of the scraps or extra large trash bags. Tape them to the side of the whale at the appropriate location. 11. Have students enter the whale slowly and carefully and be seated inside. As a precaution, supervise the whale when the students are inside. If the fan accidentally turns off, they still have plenty of time to exit. Show them how to hold the door for easy exiting.

Blubber Activity:
1. Cover the inside bottom of one of the cups with a layer of cotton balls 2. Stand one of the thermometers on the layer of cotton balls 3. Fill the cup with cotton balls 4. Slowly pour the oil into the cotton-filled cup"NOTE: Lay the cup on its side of the weight of the thermometer tends to topple the cup over." 5. Read and record the temp shown on each thermometer. Then place the cups with their thermometers into the freezer and shut the door. 6. Read and record the temp at the end of 30 min.

Blubber Mitt Activity:
1. Put 1 cup of shortening into a zip-top bag. 2. Put your hand into the empty zip-top bag. 3. Put your hand with the bag on it into the bag containing the shortening. 4. Keeping your hand in the first bag, squeeze and spread the shortening until it surrounds your hand like an oven mitt. (Take care to keep your hands "dry.") 5. To make sure the shortening doesn't "escape," seal the tops of the bags together with duct tape.

Images, work sheets, additional web pages


Items for discussion or conclusion

1st question

What is a Whale?

2nd question
Why is it better for a whale to whistle and click in water versus air?

3rd question
What is the difference between whales with teeth and those with baleen?

4th question
What is blubber and why do whales have it?



To assess if the students learned something from the activities the teacher can determine the following points. Can the students easily differentiate between whales and fish? Can they explain why water is a better conductor for sound than air? Can they compare and contrast the different feeding methods used by baleen whales? Can they distinguish between baleen whales prey and toothed whales prey? Have students explain why blubber helps whales to live in freezing waters. Possible administer quizzes over material. Below is a sample Quiz with an answer key.

Whale Test

  1. Label the parts of the whale. a. b. c. d.
  2. What is the purpose of a whale's blubber?
  3. Is a whale a mammal? Give 3 reasons to support your answer.
  4. How do whales communicate?
  5. List three ways in which a whale is different from a fish.
  6. What is whaling? Why did/do people work to stop it?
  7. List 3 ways in which you are like a whale.
  8. List two reasons for why it is important to protect whales. Then tell me one thing you can do to help protect them.
  9. Bonus Question - What is the largest animal that has ever lived on earth?

Answer Sheet
1. a. fluke b. dorsal fin c. blowhole d. flippers
2. The blubber is a deep layer of fat that serves to keep the whale warm.
3. Yes. Whales breathe air. They give birth to live young. The calves drink milk. They have a few hairs. They are warm-blooded.
4. Whales make sounds like clicks. They also sing.
5. A whale breathes air while a fish breathes water. Whales have blowholes while fish have gills. Whales have soft skins while fish have gills. Whales' tail fins go up and down while fish's go side to side. Whales are warm-blooded while fish are cold-blooded. Whales give birth to live young while fish lay eggs.
6. Whaling is when people hunt whales. Many laws have been passed to stop the hunting because people learned that whales are an important part of our world and that if we continue hunting them, we could lose them.
7. We both breathe air. We both feed our babies milk. We are both warm-blooded. Any other common mammalian trait will suffice.
8. It is important to protect whales because if we don't, they could all die. Whales deserve to live because they are a part of the world. If we lose them, the food chain will be affected. Other opinions are acceptable.
9. The blue whale

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

Further activities to do could be to set up a trip to go whale watching on a day tour. A trip to see aquariums such as Sea World. Have students grow their own brine shrimp and set up a small fresh water aquarium in class room. Have students observe fishes eating habits and compare with prior and new found knowledge. Another good activity is to have the students do a researcher project. Have the student's teacher each other about their researcher project or give a small presentation.

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

Web Address

Additional References

Heyning, John E., Masters of the Ocean Realm, Whales, Dolphins, & Porpoises, University of Washington Press, 1995.