In the belly of a whale

Nile, an inflatable humpback whale the size of a school bus, gives Perkins students an opportunity to explore whales, inside and out

Students standing next to an inflatable whale

Nile, an inflatable humpback whale the size of a school bus, took up temporary residence in Dwight Hall for two days this week. Photo Credit: Anna Miller.

April 8, 2016

Perkins School for the Blind has welcomed musicians, politicians and professional athletes to its Watertown campus, but its latest visitor made a bigger impression than any of them.

Nile, an inflatable humpback whale the size of a school bus, took up temporary residence in Dwight Hall for two days this week, courtesy of naturalist Cynde McInnis. Nile and McInnis travel together to schools across the region, teaching students about whales and their ocean environment.

On Wednesday, McInnis led Lower School student Zac on a tour around Nile. Starting at the nose, Zac trailed his hand along the whale’s mouth, stopping at its eye, which was larger than his open palm. He and McInnis navigated around Nile’s 10-foot-long flipper and continued toward the tail.

“You’re still walking by the whale,” McInnis said. “It’s that big.”

For students who are blind or visually impaired, understanding what a 43-foot-long animal looks like is difficult. In her science classes at Perkins, teacher Kate Fraser often uses tactile objects to bring concepts like cells and molecules to life. But that’s difficult to do with a marine animal that can weigh close to 40 tons.

When she learned about The Whalemobile, as McInnis calls her presentation, Fraser saw a unique learning opportunity for students of all abilities.

“It works for everyone,” she said, “whether they’re learning the difference between big and small, or anatomy like my biology class.”

Secondary Program student Jonah gasped as whale expert Robi Zallen handed him a tooth from a sperm whale, as large and heavy as a baked potato. She followed it with a piece of baleen, the filtration system that humpback whales use instead of teeth to separate small fish and crustaceans from seawater in their mouths.  One side of the baleen was covered in coarse hairs, the other with hard ridges.

“It’s like a big collector of fish,” Zallen said. “Imagine taking a bite of cereal, putting it in your mouth, and then spitting (the milk) out through your teeth – that’s how they eat.”

Later, Jonah and his classmates crawled through a flap in Nile’s side to learn more about a whale’s interior organs. When inflated, Nile can comfortably fit more than a dozen students and adults.

McInnis clapped her hands to mimic a whale’s heartbeat, which beats only five or six times a minute.

“A humpback whale’s heart is about the size of three of you,” she told students. “It weighs about 450 pounds.”

Students took turns exploring the inside of Nile’s nose and tail, which are big enough for two people to crouch inside.

“I can hardly comprehend it,” said Jonah. “I didn’t know (whales) were that big.”