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In The Company Of WhalesIn-The-Company-Of-Whales

  • Subject:
  • |
  • Grade(s): 6-8
  • |
  • Duration: One class period

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will understand the following:
1. Whales live in all the oceans of the world and migrate in search of food and appropriate breeding grounds throughout the year.
2. Marine scientists are interested in tracking the movements of whales so that they can study the effects of environmental changes on whale behavior.


For this lesson, you will need:
Large world map
Pushpins in different colors
Yarn in colors to match the pushpins
Colored markers
Research materials about whales, especially their migration patterns
Computer with Internet access


1. Review with your students what they have learned about animal migration. Most of them will know that many birds migrate in the spring and the fall. Discuss the reasons for bird migration. Ask students if they know of other animals, besides birds, that migrate. Make sure they know that whales migrate, as do birds, to find food and satisfactory breeding grounds.
2. Inform students that marine scientists have been tracking the migratory patterns of whales in order to study how whales are affected by changes in the environment. For example, scientists have found that toxic pollutants in the water suppress whales' immune systems, causing many to grow sick and die.
3. Tell your class that they are going to research the migration behaviors of different whales. Divide the class into small groups, and assign a different kind of whale to each group. You might assign the following types of whales: gray whale, humpback whale, blue whale, right whale, bottlenose dolphin.
4. Have each group use the research materials you have provided and the Internet to answer the following questions:
  1. How far does the whale travel?
  2. Where does it spend the summers?
  3. Where does it spend the winters?
5. After groups have completed and recorded their research, post a large world map on the bulletin board, and have groups plot the migration routes of their types of whale. Each group should choose its own color pushpin to mark points along the whale's migration route, and then connect the points with matching yarn. Students can use colored markers to create a color key at the bottom of the map to identify each type of whale.
6. During the year, you can discuss where the whales might be and why.

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Adaptations for Older Students:
Have students work individually, rather than in groups. Give each student a world map, and have him or her use colored pens to trace the migration routes of three or four types of whale.

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Discussion Questions

1. Discuss how whales are uniquely adapted to their marine environment.
2. Why do you think that humans are so intrigued by whale songs? Some scientists feel that these songs indicate that whales have a high level of intelligence. Do you agree or disagree? Support your answer with examples.
3. Until the late 1960s, members of the whaling industry actively harvested whales for a living. If whaling were how you and your family made your living for generations, how would you defend and explain your actions to an organization such as Greenpeace?
4. Watching whales has replaced hunting them as a lucrative industry. Brainstorm a list of other alternative income sources that could replace the jobs lost by the moratorium on whaling.
5. Some scientists have compared the current state of our oceans to the domestication of the prairies. To what extent do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
6. One idea that has been promoted has been the development of a marine park for whales similar to the national parks and nature preserves that appear on land throughout the world. In your opinion, how feasible is this idea? What difficulties would it entail?

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You can evaluate your students on their assignments using the following three-point rubric:
Three points: all questions answered correctly; migration route traced accurately
Two points: most questions answered correctly; migration route traced accurately
One point: two or three questions answered incorrectly; migration route traced inaccurately

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A Whale of a Controversy
For many centuries, several tribes of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest hunted whales. In 1997, the International Whaling Commission made a decision to allow the Makah Nation to hunt gray whales in Washington state waters after a hiatus of 70 years. This was a controversial decision that received a great deal of media attention. Divide your students into two groups, and have each group research one side of this issue. One group should investigate the interests and beliefs of the Makah Nation, and the other should investigate the environmentalists who opposed hunting whales. When students' research is complete, lead the class in a debate. As an enhancement to the activity, you can begin with an informal poll on student opinion about the issue, and then conclude with the same poll to determine whether any students' opinions have changed.

Safety Nets
Despite regulations and public pressure, the tuna-fishing industry still uses nets that take the lives of approximately 20,000 dolphins and porpoises a year. Investigate how these nets are used and constructed. How do they trap dolphins? Design an original dolphin-safe net. If possible, create a miniature prototype of your design.

Whale Songs
Roger Payne has developed a musical shorthand to record and study the sounds of whales. Listen to a tape of whale sounds. On paper, try to create your own shorthand to represent the sounds that your hear. Pass the paper on to another student, and have him or her "sing" the song. How well do your notes represent the song?

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Suggested Readings

Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises
Mark Carwardine and Michael Bryden, eds. Facts on File, 1999.
This comprehensive book provides an up-close look at whales, from their intelligence and social behavior to their legends, anatomy, and strandings. The majesty of whales and their close relatives the dolphins and porpoises is captured in the elegant colored photographs that illuminate this work.

The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet
Jim Nollman. Henry Holt, 1999.
The author's years of observing the vocalization of both whales and dolphins are recorded in this work, which illustrates not only his scientific discoveries but the respect he has for whales. Anecdotes describing his encounters with whales, as well as local myths and legends, fill the chapters of this work that espouses an "environmental consciousness."

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The Marine Mammal Center
A rescue, research, and educational facility that has a special section on whales at its web site that would be great for student research

American Cetacean Society
This site has educationall information on marine life and whale conservation. A good site to use to begin one's reseacrh with many useful inks.

Cetacean Society International
Dedicated to the protection and preservation of all whales, this non-profit conservation organization maintains a site with marine environmental education information.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society
This organization claims to be the most active charity dedicated to the conservation and welfare of whales. There are good updates on current marine environmental issues

Center for Whale Research
This center has been in operation since 1976 and conducts benign research on whales.The site has excellent information on humpbacks and orcas.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    baleen
Definition: The bone found along the upper jaws of baleen whales, used instead of teeth to filter seawater.
Context: Whale bone or baleen was the plastic of its day.

speaker    blubber
Definition: The insulating fat located between the skin and muscle layers of whales and other marine mammals.
Context: Only the bone, blubber, and oil were considered to be of value.

speaker    conservation
Definition: Planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.
Context: Many people are involved in the preservation and conservation of the whales' habitat.

speaker    echolocation
Definition: A physiological process for locating distant or invisible objects by means of sound waves reflected back to the emitter by the objects.
Context: The whales use a form of echolocation that is similar to a bat's sonar system.

speaker    migration
Definition: The periodic movement of animals from one climate or region to another, usually during the breeding season.
Context: Roger and his team turned their attention to other long whale migrations.

speaker    red tides
Definition: Large floating masses of reddish marine plankton, sometimes poisonous to fish and humans.
Context: When the red tides were building, there was an increase in the pock marks on the whales.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: geography
Understands how human actions modify the physical environment.
Understands the ways in which technology influences the human capacity to modify the physical environment (e.g., effects of the introduction of fire, steam power, diesel machinery, electricity, work animals, explosives, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, hybridization of crops).

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: geography
Understands the characteristics and uses of spatial organization of Earth's surface.
Understands the patterns and processes of migration and diffusion (spread of language, religion, and customs from one culture to another; spread of a contagious disease through a population; global migration patterns of plants and animals).

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: civics
Understands the impact of significant political and nonpolitical developments on the United States and other nations.
Knows examples of environmental conditions that affect the United States' domestic and foreign policies (e.g., destruction of rain forests and animal habitats, depletion of fishing grounds, air and water pollution).

Grade level: 6-8, 9-12
Subject area: life science
Understands how species depend on one another and on the environment for survival.
Benchmark 6-8:
Knows that behavior is one kind of response an organism may make to an internal or environmental stimulus, that behavior may be determined by heredity or from past experience, and that a behavioral response requires coordination and communication at many levels including cells, organ systems, and whole organisms.

Benchmark 9-12:
Knows that humans are increasingly modifying ecosystems as a result of population growth, technology, and consumption, that human destruction of habitats through direct harvesting, pollution, atmospheric changes, and other factors is threatening global stability, and that if this is not addressed, ecosystems will be irreversibly damaged.

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: geography
Understands the characteristics of ecosystems on Earth's surface.
Understands how relationships between soil, climate, and plant and animal life affect the distribution of ecosystems (e.g., effects of solar energy and water supply on the nature of plant communities).

Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: technology
Understands the scientific enterprise.
Knows that individuals and teams have contributed and will continue to contribute to the scientific enterprise and that doing science or engineering can be as simple as an individual conducting field studies or as complex as hundreds of people working on a major scientific question or technological problem.

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Wendy Goldfein, elementary teacher, Fairfax County Schools, Virginia, and doctoral student in science education, George Mason University.

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