Learning About Whales

Grades 2 & 3

Pre-Visit Activities   |   Post-Visit Activities  |  Explanation & Notes (pdf)   |  Key Terms & Concepts (pdf)
Exhibits and participatory investigations assist students in comparing and contrasting whales to humans.
photograph of a whale skull

This sperm whale skull has been split from front to back, showing the left side, including the brain case.

Learning standards will be met as students:

  • Determine the ways in which a mammal’s habitat provides for its basic needs
  • Discover how mammals interact with their environments through their five senses
  • Consider the different ways humans have interacted with whales over the ages
  • Use cardinal directions and lines of latitude and longitude to make observations and interpretations about whale behavior




Search and Destroy: Sperm Whale Echolocation
The Te Papa Museum in New Zealand has created a vivid, color animation that depicts how sperm whales find and capture their food in the dark depths of the ocean.

Inside Nature’s Giants: Sperm Whale
Veterinary scientist Mark Evans and comparative anatomist Dr. Joy Reidenberg dissect a Sperm Whale, which stranded and died on Pegwell Bay, Kent, England.


boy sitting on whale vertebra

Suggested Pre-Visit Activities

The Senses
  • Review the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. Which sense do the students rely the most on? (What would make it the most difficult to walk around the classroom – being blindfolded, blocking your ears, pinching your nose, numbing your tongue or holding your hands behind your back?) What about whales that dive deep into the ocean looking for food? What sense would they rely on most?
Measuring Up
  • In the hallway or outside, have the students measure off 6 feet, 45 feet, 60 feet, and 90 feet.
    • 6 feet = full grown human (male)
    • 45 feet = average length of a school bus
    • 60 feet = average length of full grown sperm whale (male)
    • 90 feet = average length of full grown blue whale (male) — female blue whales are actually larger than males (the longest ever was a female from Antarctica that measured nearly 110 feet!)
Define the following terms:
  • Baleen (whalebone): A material hanging from the upper jaw (instead of teeth) in 14 different species of whales that enable the whales to filter food, such as plankton or small fish, from the seawater. Baleen is made of keratin, which is the same substance as your fingernails and hair. When you visit, you will be able to actually touch baleen from different species of whale.
  • Blubber: The thick layer of fat between the skin and muscle of whales, dolphins and porpoises. This layer helps these animals survive in cold environments.
  • Whale oil:  The liquid obtained from melting blubber that was used in lamps and for lubrication in machines. Oil from nearly any whale was simply referred to as “whale oil” with the exception of the sperm whale, from which it was referred to as “sperm oil” if it was from the blubber or “spermaceti” if it was from the head.
  • Plankton: Tiny organisms (such as bacteria, fish larvae, etc.) that float at or near the surface of the ocean in large numbers
  • Krill: A small shrimp-like crustacean (a type of plankton often consumed by blue whales)
  • Filter Feeding: A method of feeding by which an animal strains food from water (compare to straining water from pasta)
  • Echolocation: Means of finding an object by the reflection of sound. See below for possible in-class explanations of this.
  • Ambergris: Wax-like substance that surrounds squid beaks within the intestines of a sperm whale. Believe it or not, this substance was once used in foods and medicines, and is still used by several countries today as a fixative in perfumes.
  • Cetacean: Any of the marine mammals that have a nearly hairless body; flat, horizontal notched tail; and vestigial hind limbs (there are 87 total species of whales, dolphins and porpoises known in the world today – all species breathe through blowholes located on the tops of their heads, give live birth in the water rather than on land, nurse their young, and spend their entire lives in the water).
  • This can be a difficult concept to explain to young students (or people of any age, for that matter). The following are potential exercises you can use in class to help explain how this works.
  1. The Ball: Bring students into the hallway, the gym, or outside your school. From the wall, measure distances of 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25 feet and mark with tape on the floor. At each distance, throw the ball against the wall with equal force. As you move closer to the wall, the ball should return to you faster. As you move farther away, it should return much slower. The same is true of echolocation. Whales, bats, and other animals that use echolocation will emit (send out) a sound. If that sound bounces off an object, it will return to the animal. As the animal continues to emit sounds, it will be able to determine if it is moving closer to or further from the object.
  2. The Wave: Most students will know ‘the wave’ from sports activities, so this may be a lot of fun for them. Line students up side by side. Give the student on the far left a squid illustration or model. Give the student on the far right a sperm whale illustration or model. Ask the students to do the wave beginning with the student beside the sperm whale and ending with the student beside the squid. Once the wave reaches the squid, it should immediately work its way back to the sperm whale. Have two students from the middle step out of the line, bringing the whale closer to the squid. Continue this process until the whale finally catches the squid.
How can whales be so big?
  • A blue whale can weigh 300,000-400,00 pounds. That’s the equivalent of 4-5 737 Boeing airplanes! How on earth can an animal weigh that much and still move?
    • Buoyancy has a lot to do with the answer. Whales cannot survive on land. They would be crushed under their own weight. The same is true for several species if they were to live in freshwater. Saltwater enables objects to float better than in freshwater, as saltwater is denser than freshwater.
    • The Experiment: Fill two containers with distilled water. Mark one container “Freshwater” and the other “Saltwater.” In the saltwater container, add 4 teaspoons of salt. Place a fresh egg (or raw potato) into each container. What happens? The egg (or potato) should float in the saltwater and sink in the freshwater. How does this relate to whales? Because whales are more buoyant in saltwater, they exert less energy trying to stay afloat and therefore have the ability to grow larger.


Suggested Post-Visit Activities

  • As a class, create a list of the species of whales and facts about each whale that the students learned during their visit to the Museum. What do the whales eat? How do they catch their prey? Where do they live? How large do they get? How many are left in the world today? Ask the students to pick a new species that they have not yet discussed and have them research that species (for instance, the dwarf sperm whale, the fin whale, the orca, or the beluga).
  • Go on a whalewatch! Plymouth, Barnstable and Provincetown all offer whale watches, to name a few. If you visit Provincetown in the spring, you can actually watch North Atlantic Right Whales swim past as they migrate to the feeding grounds up north with calves in tow.
  • Adopt a Whale. Help fund whale and dolphin conservation efforts.
  • Have students write a thank you note to the docents (museum volunteers) using at least one new whale-related vocabulary word they learned during their visit to the Museum.