Lesson Plan

Glacier Bay Acoustics Lesson Three: On the Trail of a Whale

Humpback Whale Tale

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6.RI.1, 6.RI.2, 6.RI.7, 7.RI.1, 7.RI.2, 8.RI.1, 8.RI.2
Additional Standards:
National Science Standards: NS.5‐8.1 Science as Inquiry, NS.5‐8.5 Science and Technology, NS.5‐8.7 History and Nature of Science  
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.


*How do scientists record and analyze underwater sounds?
*What can scientists learn about whales by listening to their sounds in the sea?
*How can this information help scientists in their efforts to protect whales and other marine animals?


Our "Underwater Acoustics" curricula unit is divided into three lesson plans, each taking one class session to complete. They are part of our "Middle School Scientists" series that explore the fascinating research and resources of Glacier Bay National Park. This is the third lesson in the series. 

In this lesson, students will learn that humpback whales make different vocalizations. They will discover how scientists can use technology to track whales by listening to their vocalizations. Students will engage in a role play activity that simulates the tracking of whales using hydrophones as they migrate between Alaska and Hawaii.

Studying whales can be challenging. Whales are often in remote oceans where there are few boats. Whales spend most of their life underwater out of sight of people. Scientists had to find a different way to track whales. Whales are very noisy and vocal animals. They sing songs, make audible blows, and communicate vocally during feeding and mating. Like people, whales also have different accents and voices. Some vocalize at a higher or lower pitch, or sing faster or slower. Whale calls even have regional differences: humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere sing a little differently than humpback whales in the Northern Hemisphere. Scientists can track whales by the unique noises they make.

Each whale, like anything that makes noise, is a sound source. Hydrophones can record the noise of the whales underwater. Using hydrophones, scientists can determine where whales are, how many there are, where they are going, diving depth, and more. However, scientists need accurate soundreceivers. For humans, our ears are sound receivers. They are what we use to hear. Not only can ears hear, but they can also determine direction. Since our ears are on two different sides of our head, they hear things at slightly different rates. If the sound source is on the right side of a person, the person's right ear will hear the noise slightly before the left ear. This is called the time of arrival difference and allows us to determine which direction a sound is coming from. Sometimes a sound source may be the same distance from each ear and it is hard to determine where the sound comes from. If we had three ears, it would be easier, but no one has three ears. However, we can have three (or more!) hydrophones recording the same whale. Underwater listening stations in the North Atlantic and North Pacific can do this. Using a process called triangulation, scientists use the time of arrival difference between several sound receivers (hydrophones) to determine where a whale vocalized.


*Read background information

*For this activity, you will need a large area, such as a playground, field, or large gymnasium. If possible create a large outline of the Pacific Ocean using tape, rope, or cone markers. Use string, tape, or rope to designate longitude and latitude lines. The easiest way to mark the space would be to use cones and put longitude/latitude flags in the cones. The minimum space should be 5 feet for every 20 degrees of latitude. 

*Make one copy per student of Whale Photo Gallery, Whale Tracker Sheet, Whale Migration Routes, and Whale Vocalization Table

*Determine whether students will be working independently or in groups for the investigation 

*Optional: One copy per student of post-assessment key to give after all instruction and investigation. Be aware that this assessment is comprehensive for all three lessons in the Glacier Bay Acoustics series. 


This pre-assessment was to be given before instruction of any of the Glacier Bay Acoustics lessons or investigations.

Download Glacier Bay Acoustics Pre Test

This pre test will assess background knowledge prior to instruction.

Download Glacier Bay Acoustics Pre Test KEY

Use during hook or preview to engage learners.

Download Humpback Whale Audio Clip List

Use during hook or preview to record thoughts.

Download Humpback Whale Photo Gallery and Whale Vocalization Table

Use during investigation to track student "whales".

Download Whale Tracker Data Sheet

Use after activity to track student "whales" and compare to real whale migratory routes.

Download Whale Migration Routes

Lesson Hook/Preview

Engagement (15 minutes): 

  1. During this activity, students will listen to a variety of humpback whale vocalizations from the clips provided. Give students copies of the "Humpback Whale Photo Gallery" and the "Whale Vocalizations Table". The images can help the students visualize humpback whales in their marine environment as you play the clips. 
  2. Play each audio clip from the "Humpback Whale Audio Clip List". Have the students listen carefully to the different humpback whale sounds. Allow the students some time to write down descriptions of the sound on the Whale Vocalizations Table. They may use terms like grunt, groan, song, click, moan, etc. Discuss and record why they think the whale is making that noise.   


Investigation (30 minutes): 

1. Tell students that today they will have a chance to become whale trackers (hydrophones), whales, and researchers (data recorders). They will be using their sense of sound to identify and locate different humpback whales.   

2. If you haven't done so already, mark out an open area with longitude and latitude lines. Every five feet should represent 20 degrees of longitude and latitude. Show students copies of the Pacific Ocean map and identify Alaska, North America, and Hawaii.

3. While standing in the activity area, have them identify longitude and latitude lines by locating a given coordinate. Call out two coordinates and ask for a volunteer to stand on that coordinate.

4. After students become familiar with navigating the map, designate five students to be whale trackers (hydrophones), five students to be humpback whales, and one student to be a researcher (recorder). 

5. Students representing whales will each make a different, unique noise. Each student could make a different animal noise, say their name, sing a song, or (for an extra challenge) imitate a whale noise.   

6. The whale trackers will listen to all five noisy humpbacks, but they will be trying to identify a specific whale. Blindfold each tracker or have them close their eyes.  

7. The whales, each with their unique vocalization, will wander around the playing area making their noise. The teacher will choose a noise for whale trackers to listen for. They will try to track that whale. For example, if the teacher says track the whale making the feeding call, the trackers must filter out all other sounds and point in the direction of the whale making the feeding call.

8. When the whale trackers think they hear the given vocalization, they point in the direction of the whale. When three trackers are all pointing at the correct whale, the game stops and the researcher records the longitude and latitude of that whale on the Whale Data Sheet. 

9. Repeat this activity for each whale vocalization, having students change jobs as needed. 

10. After the activity is completed, the Whale Trackers should plot the detected locations of their whales on the Humpback Whale Migratory Routes page.

Explanation (10 minutes): 

11. Tell students "Using technology, scientists can gather underwater sound data to help make informed decisions regarding current and future management policies." Use the following questions to help students reflect on the activity:

  • What difficulties might scientists have using this method of gathering data?
  • What can scientists learn by tracking whales? 

Optional: Administer post assessment to students to measure comprehension from all three Glacier Bay Acoustics lessons. 


*Frequencythe rate at which something occurs or is repeated over a particular period of time or in a given sample.

*Sound receiver - anything that can hear sound and determine direction 

*Sound source - anything that makes sound 

*Time of arrival difference - sound sources in different locations hear sound at different times. 

*Triangulation - Using the time of arrival difference between several sound receivers to determine the location of a sound source

Assessment Materials

Glacier Bay Acoustics Post Test

Administer post assessment to measure comprehension of all three Glacier Bay Acoustics lessons.

Glacier Bay Acoustics Post Test

Download Assessment

Rubric/Answer Key

Glacier Bay Acoustics Post Test

Use to check understanding from the post test.

Glacier Bay Acoustics Post Test KEY

Download Rubric/Answer Key

Supports for Struggling Learners

*Heterogenous pairs for the investigation and explaination 

*Give a description bank for the audio sounds such as "moo" or "whup" for students who struggle with generation 

Enrichment Activities

*Have students compare their coordinates with actual humpback whale migration routes. Are they close? Discuss why these points are accurate/inaccurate to actual whale migrations. 

Additional Resources

Sea Grant Alaska, Alaska Seas and Rivers Curriculum http://seagrant.uaf.edu/marine-ed/curriculum/grade-6/investigation-4.html?task=view

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Acoustic Monitoring Program https://www.nps.gov/glba/naturescience/acoustics.htm http://www.dosits.org/ -

Related Lessons or Education Materials

Our "Underwater Acoustics" curricula unit is divided into three lesson plans, each taking one class session to complete. They are part of our "Middle School Scientists" series that explore the fascinating research and resources of Glacier Bay National Park. This lesson is the third and final lesson. Check out the other lessons:

Acoustics Lesson One: The World of Underwater Sound
Acoustics Lesson Two: Echolocation in Action

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Last updated: July 24, 2015