What a Whale! Facts and Activities About Whales
Teach about these fascinating creatures with fun facts, whale-themed activities, books, and more.
- Grades: 1–2, 3–5
Background on Whales
- Whales are mammals that live in the ocean. Whales can be grouped into those that have teeth and a single blowhole, and those that have two blowholes. They can also be grouped as either "toothed" or "baleen."
- There are many different species of whales, differing in size and shape. The Blue Whale is the largest animal to have ever lived. It can be 100 feet in length and weigh 120 tons.
- Like other mammals, baby whales drink their mother's milk, which is rich in vitamins. A baby gray whale may drink 50 gallons of milk a day and gain 200 pounds daily.
- Whales have special mouth parts for obtaining food. Some have baleen (strips of a hornlike substance), which acts like a strainer separating the food from the water. Others have teeth to catch and rip their food, which may consist of plankton, krill, or fish. Plankton are microscopic plant and animal organisms floating in water in large numbers. Krill are small crustaceans. Baleen whales usually do not go as deep as toothed whales because their food is near the surface. A baleen whale can gulp or skim krill from the water. Humpbacks are baleen whales. Although they grow over 15 meters (50 feet) in length, they cannot swallow any piece of food larger than a baseball. They spend three or four summer months off Alaska. During that time, they consume a full year's supply of food.
- Each whale species has its own variety of sound or song, which can be a click, groan, whistle, creak, burp, cry, scream, or chirp. Some sounds are inaudible to humans but can be heard by other whales thousands of miles away.
- Whales migrate to warmer waters in winter.
- Individual whales are identified by the markings on their flukes (tail fins).
- In the hallway or at the playground, help students measure the average length of selected whales:
- Compare the whale lengths to the size of the classroom, gym, lunchroom, hall, etc., or to the length of a car, truck, bus, etc.
How Whales Eat
Simulate the differences between feeding strategies of toothed whales and baleen whales.
- Begin by adding 5 cm of water to a wide shallow container.
- Cut short lengths of grass onto the water to represent krill and add cut circles of raw carrot to represent small fish.
- Provide some students with tongs to simulate the teeth of a toothed whale and others with combs to simulate the baleen of a baleen whale. Note: Students representing baleen whales must hold the combs in a vertical position only.
- Have the children pretend they are hungry whales and see how much food they can catch.
- Ask students: Would a baleen whale be very successful in catching krill? How successful would a toothed whale be at catching krill?
- Remind the children that, in the real world, plankton, krill, and fish are not passive. Also, the baleen whale takes in a lot of water which must be pressed out before it swallows the krill.
What a Whale!
Have children use the What A Whale! Reproducible (PDF), and follow the directions to create a whale puppet.
- On a map, identify the migration routes of whales.
- Have the children try to imagine what it would be like to be able only to strain food and swallow it without chewing. Ask them to describe how they think it would feel.
- Lead the class in a game of Simon Says, substituting the terms starboard for right and port for left. These may be unfamiliar words to the children but are the norm for sailors.
- Adopt a whale through the World Wildlife Fund, Save the Whales, or the Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
Invite a Guest
Invite a guest to class who has gone on a whale watch. Ask him or her to describe the experience and share pictures.
- Baby Beluga by Raffi
- Whales by Seymour Simon
- A Whale Is Not a Fish by Melvin Berger
- The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson
- Burt Dow: Deep-Water Man by Robert McCloskey
- Humphrey the Wayward Whale by Ernest Callenbach, illustrated by Christine Leefeldt
- Ocean Animals, A Random House Tell Me About Book by Michael Chinery, illustrated by Eric Robson
- Whales by Gilda Berger
- How the Whale Got His Throat by Rudyard Kipling
- I Wonder If I'll See a Whale by Frances Ward Weller, illustrated by Ted Lewin