A whale of a time

From touching a skeleton to listening to underwater sounds, Perkins students enjoyed a day with the Cape Ann Whale Watch crew in Gloucester

Two young women examine a whale skeleton.

Perkins students were given the rare opportunity to touch a 28-foot-long humpback whale skeleton. Secondary Program student Bronwen examines the skull with Cape Ann Whale Watch intern Kaitlin Drumheller.

June 2, 2017

“Do you feel how long that is?” Dali Smolsky, a Cape Ann Whale Watch intern, guided Perkins School for the Blind student Grace’s hand down a massive bone. “That’s the face.”

“Oh my god – that’s crazy!” said Grace. “Seriously?”

Grace was one of 15 Secondary Program students from Perkins at the Whale Center in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Each of them was exploring a different part of a 28-foot-long humpback whale skeleton with the help of an intern, from its grapefruit-sized eye socket to the unique markings on its tail.

This was actually Plan B for the Perkins students, led by science teacher Kate Fraser, who were originally supposed to take part in a whale watch before fog and stormy seas kept them ashore. But you wouldn’t know it from the smiles and exclamations from the students. They were simply excited to take part in a unique, hands-on field trip that was the culmination of years of whale and ocean ecology lessons.

“We made lemonade out of lemons. The students still got exposure to multisensory science even though we didn’t go out whale watching,” said Carla Curran, professor of marine and environmental sciences at Savannah State University. Curran has visited Perkins regularly over the last four years to teach students about whale sounds, oil spills and data sonification (displaying data points with sound, rather than visual graphs). 

After the students explored the skeleton, they broke up into three groups to learn from Cape Ann Whale Watch educational coordinator Cynde McInnis and her crew of interns about how whales get their names, their eating habits and the impact of plastics on whales and other sea creatures. McInnis used puffy paint to create raised images of the different patterns on individual whales’ tales, which scientists use to name them. Students handled an actual baleen, which whales have in their mouths to filter food, as well as items they might eat, like a rubbery life-size sand eel and “plankton,” represented by grains of rice. They also touched plastic debris that the whale watch crew plucked from the ocean.

“We’re focusing on how to bring the world of science to our kids, using all their senses,” said Fraser.

Though they didn’t get to sail out, the students still got to explore the whale watch boat while it was docked. On board, they felt figurines of different marine mammals, learned about the topography of the Massachusetts coast from 3-D models and listened as McInnis lowered a hydrophone into the water to amplify underwater sounds.

“Whales don’t rely on their eyesight – they rely on their hearing. I want to make that connection with the students,” said McInnis. She played sounds of engines, torpedoes, sonar and more to explain how increased man-made noises can be disorienting for whales.  

McInnis and Curran are working toward a new whale watch date for Perkins students next year – though it might be hard to top the excitement of the students who attended this year’s trip.  

“This has been my favorite day!” said Perkins student Izzy. “I learned a lot – I didn’t know they had ‘fingers’ like us until I felt the bones in their flippers. I love whales.”

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