Lesson Plan

Whales and the World

Students look on as a ranger show pictures of Sperm whales and describes different types of whales.
Students learn about different types of whales.
Grade Level:
Sixth Grade-Twelfth Grade
Climate Change, Conservation, History, Maritime History, Social Studies
2 hours
Group Size:
Up to 24
in the park
National/State Standards:
Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Frameworks
HS Life Science:  Ecology
HS Earth and Space Science:  Materials and Energy Resources
2.1, 2.2
Grades 6-8 Life Science:  Evolution
Grades 6-8 Life Science:  Ecology


Whales and the World is a curriculum-based education program presented in partnership between New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, and the Buzzard’s Bay Coalition. The program is offered to students in grades 6 through high school and consists of three 45 minute components and may be done in any order.


Enduring Understanding: Tensions have always existed between humans and the environment with a need to balance livelihood, conservation, and tradition.

Essential Question: How has the way people viewed whaling and the environment changed over time?

Students will be able to:

  • Explain the decline in whale populations in the North Atlantic
  • Recognize different whale species that were hunted by New Bedford whalemen 
  •  Point out different whaling routes on a map
  • Describe some of the products made from whales
  •  Explain what a whale hunt was like
  • Discuss whaling in connection with conservation and sustainability


Whales and the World is a curriculum-based education program presented in partnership between New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, and the Buzzard's Bay Coalition. The program is offered to students in grades 6 through high school and consists of three 45 minute components and may be done in any order. Maximum group size = 24 students, program can accommodate three groups per day.



Teacher-lead activity-film and map

Students will be able to:

§ Explain the decline in whale populations in the North Atlantic

§ Recognize different whale species that were hunted by New Bedford whalemen

§ Point out different whaling routes on a map

Video: (video-22 minutes, wrap-up 5 minutes)

The class will see the Park's orientation film "The City that Lit the World". After viewing the film, the teacher leads a discussion with leading questions that directs the discussion to the map.

Map: (10-15 minutes)

Teacher gathers students at the large map.

·        Students locate New England, the equator, the Arctic etc.

·        A student reads a quote from the 1600s about the many whales off the New England coast.

·        Students then study the map, particularly the North Atlantic off of New England.

·        Teacher ask "What is going on?" (Visual Thinking Strategy question)

·        No whales in North Atlantic-whalemen had to go farther abroad to find whales. Make sure students examine the global whaling ports visited by New Bedford whalemen on the map to show this.

·        A student reads a brief description of what is a whale. What is a whale?

·        A student reads the key to determine what the symbols on the map mean.

·        Five students read cards with different whale species on them.

·        Students read each card out loud and show the picture to the class. (Information is very basic.)

Questions for students:

·        "When was this map made?"

·        "How long did it take to reach this point?"

·        "What do you think has happened since this map was made? Why?"

Transition: Teacher asks students what they thought it might be like to be on a whaling vessel out of New Bedford to transition to the ranger-lead part of the program.


Ranger-lead program

Students will be able to:

§ Describe some of the products made from whales

§ Explain what a whale hunt was like

§ Discuss whaling in connection with conservation and sustainability

Introduction: (10 minutes)

Introduce self and park. Explain that they are going to play a game (do not tell them it has anything to do with whales/conservation/sustainability-they are just playing a game).

Sustainability activity/discussion: (10 minutes)

(Each part should only take about 2 minutes)

Class is divided into small groups of 3-4 students. (for a class of 20-you can do 5 or 6 groups)

Each group will sit around a small wooden bowl with ten items in the bowl.

Explain to the students that the object for the activity is for each player to get as many of the items from the bowl as possible.


Ø There is NO TALKING during this round.

Ø Players can take items from their bowl only, they can take them one at any time and as many as they want once the game starts.

Ø After 10 seconds whatever is left in the bowl will double.

Ø If a group empties the bowl, they are "out" of the game.


·        Continue this cycle for several rounds.

·        Students record how many items each player had at the end of the game.

Enlist the help of teachers and chaperones to watch for disputes and to ensure no talking.

The next phase:

·        Each group goes back to ten items in the bowl and their individual tally is wiped clean.


Ø Explain to the group they have 3 minutes to develop a plan so that every person in the group gets as many points as possible. Groups are free to create any guidelines or rules they wish. (They can never take items from another group or person!)

Ø Tell them you will not give them advanced notice before the last round.


·        Play the game as before and record the amount of points each student had.

Ask the students to discuss the two versions of the game, and which version had the better results for the team members. Hopefully, when they planned ahead, there were more "resources" to share, and everyone ended up with more at the end of the second game. If everyone was just trying to get as much as they could as quickly as they could, no one had a lot.

Relate this to the whaling industry: Re-fill the bowls with ten items each. Give two students bowls to collect the items in.

·        Whaling originally took place from shore because there were so many whales off the New England coast. (Have students empty a bowl near you.)

·        As whale populations near the shore began to decline, whaleboats started to go farther from shore. (have the students almost empty another bowl slightly farther away)

·        As whales moved farther away, larger ships had to be built for long voyages. Whaleships were like floating factories.

·        Have the students think back to the map that studied. As whales began to disappear from the North Atlantic, whalemen had to go even farther from home to find whales (have the students almost empty two more bowls [one if you only have 5 groups])

·        Finally, whalemen were going to the farthest corners of the world to catch whales in the Arctic and Antarctic. (have students empty the last bowl, leaving slightly more than the previous bowls.)

Ask the students: What happened to the whales? What was so important about whales that people hunted them to near extinction (define the word extinction)

Explain baleen, oil, spermaceti, ambergris. In 1857 $11 million dollars in whaling products were brought into New Bedford.  Show examples of some of the items made from whale products.

Transition: One sperm whale = 60 barrels of oil (1/3 of which was spermaceti). Show students the size of a barrel of oil.  Ask the students "How big do you think a sperm whale was?

The hunt: (10 minutes)

·        Using a tape measure that has a sperm whale head on one end and the tail on the other (or pictures of them) two students will measure out the length of a whale. Other students will stand along the tape with images of different parts of the whale.

·        Ask students "How can humans kill something like that in the mid-1800s to early 1900s?"

·        Explain about whaleboats and use tape or blocks to roughly map out the outline of a whaleboat on the floor.

·        "Fill" the boat with six students to crew the "whaleboat", and show them their weapons…the harpoon and length of rope.

·        Remind them of the size of the whale (students are still holding the tape measure & pictures) and refer read the following quote.

·        Read the following quote or have a student read it: From Fighting the Whales, RM Ballantyne 1915. "There are few things in this world that have filled me with so much astonishment as the fact that man can kill a whale! That a fish, more than sixty feet long, and thirty feet round the body; with the bulk of three hundred fat oxen rolled into one; with the strength of many hundreds of horses; able to swim at a rate that would carry it right round the world in twenty-three days; that can smash a boat to atoms with one slap of its tail, stave in the planks of a ship with one blow of its thick skull;--that such a monster can be caught and killed by man, is most wonderful to hear of but I can tell from experience that it is much more wonderful to see"

·        Ask them how they might be feeling if they were after a whale that size with only a harpoon for a weapon and a small boat between them and this giant animal.

·        The students holding images of the whale can turn their images around to show pictures of the hunt.

·        Ask the students "Which was more important? Man or whale?"

·        Pick a couple of students to be "lost" overboard during the chase. The rest of the students need to make a choice: continue on after the whale, or save the "men" who fell overboard.

·        Let them decide and they must back-up their choice-what are the consequences of that choice?

·        Read the quote from the Seamen's Bethel: "In memory of Capt. Swain, Associate, Master of the Christopher Mitchell of Nantucket. This worthy man, after fastening to a whale was carried overboard by the line, and drowned."

·        Discuss that this is a memorial to a man lost at sea to whaling, and ask students what they think this memorial meant for the people who created it. This man was a captain, however most ordinary seamen would not get memorials. They would be buried at sea with a simple notation in the captain's journal.

Read from Greenland Whale Fishery:


Now losing of the five brave men

Did grieve his heart full sore

But the losing of the fine rite whale

It grieved him a damd sight more Brave Boys

·        Why would losing a whale upset him more than losing his crew? Money! The reason that the whaling industry flourished. Make sure to remind them that the other reason that whaling flourished was the demand for whale products from factories and families throughout America and the world.

Conclusion: (10 minutes)

·        As a class come up with a definitions of Conservation and Sustainability (card can help if they are having difficulty)

·        Ask students to think about the game they played at the beginning of the program. Did whalemen practice conservation or sustainability? Why or why not. Ask the students: If you were a consumer of whale products would you have wanted the whale ships to practice sustainability. Why or why not?

·        Whalermen wanted to catch as many whales as possible as soon as possible. Refer back to the quote from the Pilgrims and the map: What was the result of the hunt? How did it affect the whalemen? Going farther and farther abroad to bring home whales. Think back to the map activity: How did whaling affect the whale populations of the world?

·        If we knew then what we know now, do you think whaling would have been the same or different? Why? What modern day business in New Bedford has to answer these same questions?

·        The main era of whaling ended with the discovery of petroleum underground in Pennsylvania. Had oil underground not been discovered, what do you think might have been the result on the whale populations of the world?

Do people still whale today? Explain the International Whaling Commission and the different kinds of whaling today. The Natives in Alaska subsistence whaling versus countries like Japan who still whale for profit. Government of Japan trying to get students to develop a taste for whale meat.

What are some other things, besides the modern whaling industry, that might affect the health of the whales? Part of the bigger eco-system. Make ties to BBC program if they are going there, and refer back to what they did at BBC if they did it first.


“A careful preservation and protection of something; especially:  planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.”

“Preservation, protection or restoration of the natural environment and of wildlife.”
Oxford Dictionaries

“Relating to a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.”

“Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.”
Oxford Dictionaries