Go back to previous page

Project title or topic of activity

Marine Mammals: Just Like Us

Author(s): Alina Fuggiti, Jessica Letarte, Marissa Mesa

Date: Spring 2001


Summary of Activity

The main purpose of this activity or station is to inform the children what exactly marine mammals are. This includes why they are not like the other organisms in the ocean, for example: fish. We do this by showing them how marine mammals are quite similar to us, and have quite a few drastic differences compared to fish.


Grade levels

3rd through 6th

Background information

These animals can get rather complex so first I will talk about the general basic concepts of a marine mammal and fish, then I will give some interesting facts on the marine mammals.

Marine Mammals:

These animals evolved from mammals on land, making a return to the ocean, some of their ancestors are elephants and other land animals. Marine Mammals are governed under the same characteristics that make a mammal, such as hair, warm blood, lungs, mammary glands, live birth, and a hinged jaw. More specifically Marine mammals have a way to keep themselves warm, and are highly adapted to swimming.


The animals evolved in the ocean, and are highly adapted for life in this environment. Some basic characteristics of fish in general are gills, a swim bladder, and scales. Fish are the most diverse group of vertebrates so this might be a good activity to but after fish diversity.


These animals are highly streamlined for swimming with a thick layer of blubber achieving this as well as warmth. They propel themselves forward with an up and down movement of their tail. They live in groups called pods, which have very interesting social structures. These animals have been known to help keep a mother afloat when she is giving birth, showing that they care about the well being of one another. These animals used to be hunted vigorously for many products that the humans used. This did not slow until some laws were past. Yet, even now many are dying due to hunting, just not of the cetacean, but rather fish, and these marine mammals just happen to wander into their nets.

Toothed: These are the orcas, dolphins, and other toothed whales. These animals are very intelligent and are often seen in shows, there have been many case studies that show that these animals actually do like human contact, such as coming back voluntarily to a dolphinarium. They are smaller then their baleen counterparts, and are carnivorous eating a wide range of food. Toothed whales also use echolocation, which is a way for them to tell about their surroundings. These also are relatively unique to each animal, each with their own sound patterns.

Baleen: The larger whales, includes the largest animal on earth, the blue whale whom happens to be a female. Some of these whales have elaborate songs, most notably the Humpback whale, whom actually passes down these songs from generation to generation. These songs also change when going from pod to pod.


These animals live mainly along the coasts of Florida. Manatees have no natural predators but are yet extremely endangered animals. Their main problem is with human caused events, most notably the speedboats. Although they can swim relatively fast because of how shallow the water they graze on is, they can not dodge the fast moving speedboats. There is a simple cure for this that is currently trying to be enforced, which are propeller guards. An example is: A navy fleet had a run in with a group of manatees and killed a mother and her child. To prevent this from happening they installed propeller guards on all their boats, and have not had any accidents since. This makes the wound blunt instead of an actual cut, which is much easier to recover from.

Sea Otters:

Sea Otters have a unique way of keeping warm; they have extremely dense fur, 1,000,000 hairs per square inch. It is made up of two different types of hairs, one type is the under hair which is used for insulation, while the other type keeps the under hair dry. Their hair also lacks erector pili which is what causes hair to be able to stand straight up, this causes the hair to lay flat against the body. One unique thing about Sea Otters is their use of tools, when eating.

Sea Otters consume 20-25 percent of their body weight every day; because of how much they eat fishermen consider them competition and sometimes try to get rid of them. This is why they have created 'otter free zones' for the fishermen; so many people try to keep them out of these areas.

Polar Bears:

This species arose from the brown bears, and are actually the largest bears there are. They can get up to 800kg and over 3.5m tall. A polar bear's fur is not white. Each hair shaft is pigment-free and transparent with a hollow core. Polar bears look white because the hollow core scatters and reflects visible light, just like ice and snow does. Sometimes polar bears will actually turn green. This is because of colonies of algae growing in the bears' hollow hair shafts. It is thought that the algae form a symbiotic environment with the bear, giving the bear warmth through photosynthesis and the bear providing shelter. Humans sometimes hunted them, for the meat, blubber, and fur. Also they have problems with wandering into towns, which would kill them. They are highly adapted for marine life, including webbed toes, and a thick layer of blubber. Polar Bears exhibit an idea of self-awareness for when hunting on land; they cover their nose with their paws, as well as squint their eyes to prevent them from being seen. They have 1 to 2 cubs that they care for, that stay for approximately 3 years each. They are considered marine mammals because their entire lifestyle depends on the ocean. Their main food source is seals and sometimes fish. Polar bears are the world's largest land predators.


There are 33 species of pinnipeds; these range from sea lions, seals, to walruses. In general pinnipeds tend to prefer colder waters. Though they come on land to breed, molt, warm, and rest. They are highly streamlined because of their blubber. The walruses have tusks and are more similar to sea lions then seals. They can be up to 5m long, and have tusks, which can be used for a variety of things including mating battles and freeing ice. Some of the problems that these animals have to face are humans hunting for them, as well as pollution going into the oceans. There are some rather big differences between seals and sea lions from these groups that are not often recognized. These are a few basics:


Sea Lions

Swim with hind flippers, which are completely furred.

Swim with fore flippers, which have naked soles.

Can be freshwater or marine

Exclusively marine

Drag bodies while on land

This group is much more able bodied on land, and are commonly seen in shows.

Credit for the activity


Estimated time to do the activity/activities

15-25 Minutes.

Goals of Activity/Activities:


  • The goal of this station is to teach younger students about marine mammals in an interactive and fun environment.
  • Our objective is to ask as well as explain how marine mammals live, and we will be talking mainly about how dolphins and whales are ‘just like us’ and that they are not like fish.

The main points will be on their social behaviors and their parental care because those two factors are the main reasons these animals are so well known and loved. These are also key to show how their family structure relate to how humans act. That they just don't swim around mindlessly. Intelligence is very important and should be tied in the follow-up discussion for it shows how are not mindless creatures and that they can think and understand, which may get the kids interested and more involved in trying to help conserve these animals. As always these things can be manipulated by the teacher to suit the children's interests, one of our other goals is pin pointing interesting facts about the marine mammals that most of the children did not know.

  • Another objective is to make them aware on the conservation of marine mammals, with interactive questions involving how we can conserve marine mammals and the factors, which led to declining population size. This however will only be alluded to until the conclusion.


The wonderful thing about this workshop is that it is flexible enough that it does not have to focus on only one thing about marine mammals. If the group would rather talk about manatees, there are enough visuals and items so that a lot of time could be used on that subject, or if the students would rather talk about the intelligence of the mammals instead of their social habits, that too is available for discussion. This station is not meant to be very specific and allows the flexibility for the college students to adapt to each student group’s interest, and depending on the knowledge of the teacher. As long as the students come out of the station with a feel for marine mammals, and know that they are not just big fish.


Materials Needed

    1. Make use of any mammal related props that are available, either from the mammal library or props from ECOL 183.
    2. A cassette player with either an extension cord or batteries is needed to play the background cetacean noises. This is not necessary but a very nice added touch. A copy of a Cetacean tape will be made available, the actual CD sounds and songs of the HUMPBACK WHALE, can be purchased at Barnes and Noble, for 5.95.
    3. Have either a sea otter pelt, or a demonstration of how a sea otter pelt is thicker and more complex then regular fur. This can be achieved with different types of fabric such as velvet and shag rug.

    1. Poster boards with pictures of all marine mammals placed around the station with little bits of information on them. If the students seem more interested in the information on the poster board rather than with what we are saying, you can talk about what is on the board. This station is meant to supply information and a fun learning station for the kids on anything to do with marine mammals, so it is very flexible in the information. Some Suggested boards are:

          1. A poster with information on polar bears will be helpful as well. It will include fun facts such as how polar bears stay warm because their fur has algae growing in it and the algae makes heat through photosynthesis.
          2. One poster will have a poster with information on manatees and dugongs such as their similarities and differences and how sea men originally thought they were mermaids and that is how they got their species name.
          3. One poster will be on dolphins and whales. This poster can go more into depth on the aspects of the Cetaceans.
          4. The last poster is on seals/sea lions and walruses. This will show differences between them such as body size and the way they live.
          5. These posters can be substituted for whatever posters apply, or if the teachers wants to bring in another different marine mammal poster. These posters can be good for the children to look at, and for the teacher to references for harder questions.


Materials needed for the activity:

Item needed:


Where it can be purchased:

1 Foam poster board (blue)


UofA Bookstore

Multicolor construction paper



Large markers



Glue Stick



Colored Tape



Moveable wriggling eyes



Magnetic Tape (1 roll)



4 regular poster boards (white)





  • The foam poster board is the background for the activity.
  • The multicolored construction paper is to cut out the shapes to write the questions on as well as to make pictures of whales and fish to put on the poster board.
  • The large markers are to be used to write down the questions on the cutouts from the construction paper.
  • The glue stick is to glue all the different pieces of construction paper so that we can make the designs look like whales and fish.
  • The colored tape will be used to divide the foam poster board into the three sections for the game.
  • The moveable wriggling eyes are to be used to make the cutouts look more inviting and fun to play with.
  • The magnetic tape is so that we can repeatedly place the cutout questions onto the poster board without ruining it, which is what would happen if we used regular tape. Pieces of magnetic tape will be placed onto the poster board in each of the sections and one strip will be placed onto each of the question cutouts. The student’s will then place the questions onto the magnetic tape in the section they believe is correct on the board and the questions will stick to the board.
  • The four regular poster boards will be to place visual information and pictures around the station


Preparation & teacher "heads up"

The teacher would need to get all the materials such as the poster boards and hands-on items and place them around the station area. The game will have to be placed onto the chalkboard or onto the posterboard depending on where the activity is located and the magnetic questions placed around the board for easy access when it is time to play the game. The cassette player will have to be checked to make sure it is working and that the cetacean cassette is in it and ready to play as soon as the play button is pushed. All the available mammalian props need to be set up around the station for the children to look at and feel.

When the group arrives, start the cassette tape. After the group leaves, make sure to remove the magnetic facts from the board game and place them around the board game again so that the next group will not get to see where the answers go.

Step-by-Step Procedure

  • Our activity is called Whales vs. Fish; the basis is to show the children that marine mammals are not like fish in most aspects.
  • It involves a poster board or the chalkboard divided into three sections, the Venn diagram method is rather good for this purpose.
  • One of the sections will be called Whales, one will be Fish and one will be Both. A depiction of what the section is should be placed at the top, making sure to describe to the children what each section is for, and that they should put the pieces they will receive in the appropriate section.
  • Facts will be written on separate, loose pieces of construction paper that are in fun shapes that will hopefully entice the children to play and have discussions as to why things go where with the others.




Have lungs



Have gills



Move tail up and down



Move tail side to side



Nurse Babies



Have hair



Have scales



Have live birth



Mostly oviparous birth



Have swim bladder















Most do not care for young






Live in Water



  • If the group is small you can give them all several pieces. In case of a large group you can divide them into two groups of two to three kids; or three groups of two kids each. It all depends on the teacher's preference here.
  • The groups will place the facts in the section they believe they belong in. After the kids are done, they will no longer be in groups and we will tell them how many are correct. They will have to try and figure which ones they are as a whole group.
  • For those that are incorrect and they do not know why you should try to discuss it in a manner where they show why they made that choice, then urge them in the right direction so they make the discovery themselves

Images, work sheets, additional web pages


Items for discussion or conclusion



This discussion is to be done before the activity. This will give you a general idea of what previous knowledge the children already have of marine mammals. For an ice breaker you can ask the child to say their name and their favorite marine mammal. Make a note of these so you know what they would like to hear about, and if you know a sufficient amount of knowledge on that area try to talk about it.

    • Now is the time to talk about a few particular marine mammals, try to keep it down to two or three animals, or even less depending on how long you stay on a particular mammal.

First ask them how marine mammals are like humans; guide them towards some of the basic characteristics of mammals. Now after they have a feeling of what a mammal is, ask them where they think marine mammals evolved? On land or in water? And why? After a relatively quick discussion depending on where they thought they were from and why you can go on. Just make sure you end up with the idea that marine mammals were originally on land before water.

Ask them if they can name marine animals that are not mammals (i.e. fish or sponges) now they have their previous knowledge, if they say fish you are on the right road! If not ask them what about fish? After you get your answer talk about why they chose what they did. Again try to direct them to the basic characteristics of fish, but make sure you just don't tell them.



Now is time to talk about marine mammal conservation. You can start it out asking, "So do you think there are a lot of marine mammals in the ocean?" You might get mixed answers, but you can inform them that most of the marine mammals are in fact are endangered. Make sure you go into why they actually are having problems, such as hunting, motor boats, and pollution, though because of the time restraints keep this section brief if pressed for time. Then you can tell them about adoption programs, and other things people do for marine mammals.

For a quick wrap up, ask the children what they learned in the station, correct any misconceptions, and add little details they might have missed.

Ask students if the have any questions or comments.


If the children you teach walk away happily knowing what the basics of a marine mammal are, and how they are different from other animals you have accomplished your goal.


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

Materials: construction paper

glue sticks



poster board

This activity is to make initial differences between marine mammals and fish. We have selected a sea lion and a shark. The students can either cut out the shapes of the shark/sea lion or they can be pre-cut. The students will be handed a variety of characteristics and they are to associate the characteristic with the correct animal and category. The four categories are: characteristics, daily life, food and where these animals live, and enemies. Also, the students will glue the fur to the sea lion and the sand to the shark in order to demonstrate physical differences between the two. Once the students have placed the characteristics in their categories then as a whole they will discuss why they placed them where they did.

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

Web Address





Additional References



Spanish keywords

Dolphin: Delfin

Whale: Ballena

Seal: Sello

Sea Lion: León de mar

Polar Bear: Oso Polar

Sea Otter: Nutria del mar

Walrus: Morsa

Live in water and on land: viven en agua y en la tierra

Care for young: Cuidan a los jovenes

Enemies: Enemigos

Fish: Pescados

Mammal: Mamífero

Endangered: Puesto en peligro

Conservation: Conservacion

Warm Blooded: Sangre caliente

Mammary Glands: Glándulas Mamarias

Hair: Pelo

Blubber: Grasa de ballena

Lungs: Pulmones

Live Birth: Nacimiento Vivo

Evolve: Desarróllese

Streamlined: Aerodinamizada

Cold Blooded: Sangre Fría

Scales: Escalas

Tail: Cola

Human: Ser humano