Monday, December 29, 2014

Final whale tale

Hi Sea Fans,

This is my last post about my visit with the whale! If you remember, I was in Massachusetts with Cynde McInnis and The Whalemobile. The Whalemobile is a life-sized inflatable humpback whale, modeled after an actual whale that summers off the coast of MA. 
The whale is named Nile, and she was 27 years old this year. Cynde helps keep track of the different whales that come off the coast, and Nile has quite a family (although they rarely ever associate with one another as adults). Her mother Mars, first seen in 1979, has had 10 calves over the past 35 years. Nile was born in 1987 and she has had 5 calves. She had her fifth calf with her this past season. The researchers hope to see Nile’s calf next summer!

I left off the last blog at the point where we were going to go inside Nile! It’s so big when you get inside! When Cynde had the whale made, she had the heart, lungs, stomach, ribs and vertebrae sewn on the inside as well. 
A whole class of students (about 25) can fit inside the whale together. It’s a little dark so Cynde has a flashlight and uses it to point all different parts of the whale. She starts with the heart. It’s bigger than a big exercise ball, and in a blue whales, it’s the size of a small car! A whale’s heart beat is much slower than humans. The kids clap their own heart beat and then follow Cynde’s clap to illustrate the whale’s heart beat! They always have a look of surprise on their face when they clap every 6 seconds or so.

Next, Cynde talks about the blowholes and lungs. The whale’s lungs are the size of an adult sleeping bag! While in that area, she points out the ribs and vertebrae that go all the way to the whale’s tail, but not in the tail. Finally, she talks about the mouth and how huge it is. Did you know a humpback whale jaw bone is about 8-10 ft long? Put your thumb on your chin and then your index finger on your ear lobe. That’s about how long your jaw is. It’s a lot smaller! When the whales feed, they open their mouths, scoop up huge amounts of fish and water, and then they use their tongue to push the water out through the baleen plates. The fish then go down their throat to their stomach where they are digested. Cynde asks, “Then what happens?”

Poop!! Yes, as a scientist on the whale watch boat, Cynde keeps track of the color of the whale’s poop. What would that tell her? What the whales eat! If they are eating sand eels, the poop is brown, and if they feed on krill, it turns fire engine red! Now, whale poop has gotten a lot of attention in the media lately. Cynde asks, “Does whale poop benefit the ocean at all?” What does a farmer put on his crops? Manure, right? Why? There are nutrients in the poop that help the plants grow. Again, the same thing is going on in the ocean. The whale poop acts as fertilizer in the ocean. The more whales, the more poop, the more nutrients, the more plankton. Now, does phytoplankton benefit humans? Take two breaths. You can thank plankton in the ocean for one of them. They produce over half the oxygen that we breathe on the planet! I loved watching the students put together that whale poop benefits humans! 

The last thing the students did was talk with Captain John who runs the whale watch boat. He talked trash with the students. Well, he talked about marine debris. He shared with them different pieces of trash that are found in the ocean and which animals can be injured by them. Plastic grocery bags are often found in the bellies of whales when they wash up on the beach. Plastic bits can be found in turtles and birds. They talked about recycling and how important that is to be conscious of the choices that we make. Instead of using plastic water bottles, the kids remembered to use reusable ones. Instead of taking those plastic bags from the shop, they talked about taking cloth bags to the shop. It’s so encouraging to ask the students, “Who recycles at home?” Their response is, “Of course!”

All in all, I had a great time with Cynde and Nile and learned so much about whales! Hope you are all having a wonderful holiday and stay tuned for my next adventure!!

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Whales details

Hi Sea Fans,

Hope you are having a nice holiday season. I wanted to share with you a little bit more about my time with Cynde and The Whalemobile. It was really fun. Cynde started out the day with a presentation to the students about whales. I got to sit with her while she talked to the kids. Did you know that whales are mammals just like us? They breathe air! It’s not water that comes out of their blowhole. Cynde talked about how there are over 85 different species of whales that are divided into two groups—toothed and baleen whales. Toothed whales include the dolphins, porpoises, orcas and sperm whales. They have a single blowhole, and they have teeth in their mouth. Here is a picture of me holding a sperm whale tooth. 

The baleen whales have two blowholes on top of their head, and in their mouths, they have large triangular plates--200-300 on each side! They use these plates to filter fish out of the water. Humpbacks, blue, fin and right whales are all baleen whales.  Here is a picture of me with the baleen from a fin whale.

After showing these artifacts to the students, Cynde then focused most of her talk on humpbacks because that is what she sees most often on the whale watch boat. Humpbacks migrate to the Caribbean in the winter to mate and calve and then to the coast of Massachusetts in the spring, summer and fall to feed. It’s so amazing; whales are off MA feeding the same time the leaves are on the trees. It’s because the growing season in the ocean is the same as that on land. Phytoplankton, the plant-like critters of the ocean, use nutrients, sunlight, water and CO2 to photosynthesize. They grow in huge numbers when all of these are readily available. These phytoplankton attract zooplankton (animal plankton), which in turn attract small fish like sand eels. The food chain!! That is why the whales come to feed! It’s so amazing how it’s all connected!

After Cynde’s talk, all the kids and I got to see the whale inflate! It only takes about 45 seconds, and it’s so amazing to watch. I loved listening to the students get all excited as they watched Nile get bigger and bigger. She’s 43 feet long! After Nile was inflated, we took turns by class and got to go inside!!

Happy holidays Sea Fans!
Chat soon!
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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Whales in Massachusetts!

Hi Sea Fans,

I just spent a couple days with Cynde McInnis from The Whalemobile teaching kids about humpback whales! Cynde also works at Cape Ann Whale Watch in Gloucester, MA. They take passengers out to watch humpback whales on their feeding grounds in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.  A Marine Sanctuary is an area in the ocean that is protected for its cultural, natural or historical significance. In the case of Stellwagen Bank, there are more than 500 plants and animals found in the 842 square miles off the coast of Massachusetts—including 3 species of endangered whales: the humpback, fin and right whales.

Unfortunately, I was too late in the season to go whale watching, but I was lucky that I could work with Cynde and go into schools with her life-sized inflatable humpback named Nile. Did you know that if you go whale watching at Cape Ann, the naturalists will tell you the names of the whales you are seeing? They know them! The same whales come back year after year to these feeding grounds. This summer they saw Pepper, 
and Nile (to name a few). 
Humpbacks along the entire East Coast of the U.S. are given names based on the patterns on the underside of their tail. The names help the researchers remember the animals. All the researchers use the same names for the whales, so “Sockeye” in Massachusetts is also called “Sockeye” in the Caribbean or Canada.

Nile was named for the black line on the left side of her fluke that looks like the Nile River. She was seen as a calf in 1987, so we know that she is 27 years old this year, and her mother is Mars. (The baby stays with its mom for one year.) Hancock got his name because in the upper right corner, the mark looks like a signature, or John Hancock. He was also seen as a calf in 1991 and his mother is Clipper (one of Cynde’s favorites). Pepper was the first whale to be named in 1975! She wasn’t seen as a calf so they don’t know how old she is exactly, but she is at least 40 years old.

But back to talking about Nile. Cynde has seen Nile almost every year she has been a naturalist (over 20 years), so she decided to have a life-sized version of her made! 
Years ago, lots of schools would do field trips to watch whales, but that doesn’t happen as much anymore.  Cynde thought that taking a large whale into the schools was a close second to actually seeing a whale. I went to two schools with her and got to talk to 200 hundred children. The best part was that the students actually got to go INSIDE of Nile. Stay tuned for some of the things that the students were able to learn and see!!!

Have a great last few days before Christmas Sea Fans!
Chat soon.
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