Lesson Plan

The World of Underwater Sound

porpoise breathing
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.5‐8.3 Life Science, 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.

Essential Question

What is the nature of sound and what role does it play in an underwater environment?


*What is underwater acoustic monitoring?
*What sounds can you hear underwater?
*Why is underwater acoustic monitoring important?
*How is sound important to marine mammal survival?


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.

In this lesson, students begin this investigation by watching the seven-minute video, "Underwater Acoustic Monitoring." Students discuss their reactions to the video and then listen to sound clips of ocean animals and human-made sounds. This will familiarize them with sounds commonly heard in the ocean. This investigation demonstrates how humans and marine mammals rely on sound for communication and even survival.

Sound travels in waves. Waves are rhythmic disturbances that carry energy through space, like water ripples traveling across a pond's surface. Sound waves can travel through different solids, liquids, and gases. The study of sound is called acoustics and researchers in Glacier Bay conduct underwater acoustic monitoring. 

The ocean is full of sound, some natural and some anthropogenic (human-made). Most anthropogenic sound comes from boat traffic, especially large shipping freighters. Other human noise contributors come from industrial activities such as drilling, mining and militaryobservations using sonar. In Glacier Bay, most boat noise is produced by small recreational boats, cruise ships, and tour boats. Other natural sounds you can hear underwater include, surf, rain, wind, underwater earthquakes, glaciers calving, fish, crustaceans, marine mammals, and more! These underwater sounds are heard and recorded by a hydrophone. Many marine animals, especially mammals, rely on sound to communicate, navigate, find food, and interact with their environment. By studying underwater sound and analyzing data, scientists are trying to understand how ambient noise, or background noise, may impact or alter the behavior of marine mammals and other ocean animals. 

Your ears allow you to hear sounds because they are caused by the vibration of objects. For example, your voice is produced by the vibrations of your vocal chords. The energy produced by these vibrations is carried to your friend's ears by sound waves. Loud sounds have more energy than soft sounds. The volume (or loudness) of a sound is measured in decibels (dB). The rustling of leaves measures about 15 dB while a jet plane taking off measures about 150 dB. 

Wave frequency determines the pitch of a sound. Pitch is defined as the highness or lowness of a sound. The pitch you hear depends on the sound waves' frequency, how quickly the sound waves complete a wave. The higher the frequency, the higher the pitch, and the lower the frequency, the lower the pitch. Pitch or frequency is measured in cycles per second, or Hertz (Hz). For example, most people can hear frequencies from between 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. Sound frequencies over 20,000 Hz are calledultrasonic waves and are out of our range of hearing. A dog whistle frequency is optimized to produce sounds above 20,000 Hz, which is inaudible to the human ear. 

High frequency sounds do not travel very far in water because their wavelengths are short and the energy gets rapidly absorbed by water. Low frequency sound waves travel farther in water because of their longer wavelengths. Humpback whales produce sounds that are within the range of human hearing. Their songs can travel 20-30 kilometers or more. A blue whale produces infrasonic sound, which is well below our range of hearing. These low frequency waves can travel thousands of kilometers in water.


  • Determine whether students will do the investigation independently or as a group (homogenous or heterogenous) 
  • Read and preview background information, investigation, and video
  • Make one copy per student of the "Video and Vocabulary Worksheet" and "Marine Mammal Photo Gallery" 
  • Prepare at least 10 sticky notes per group or student 
  • Identify two safe locations where students can complete a 1-3 minute listening activity 


Use during hook or preview to engage students.

Download Underwater Acoustics Video and Vocabulary

Use during investigation with audio clips.

Download Marine Mammal Photo Gallery

Use during investigation.

Download Marine Mammal Audio Clip Links

Use to assess background knowledge of students before any instruction or investigation. This can be compared to the results of the post test, which will be administered after all three lessons.

Download Glacier Bay Acoustics Pre Test

Used to assess pre test.

Download Glacier Bay Acoustics Pre Test KEY

Lesson Hook/Preview

Optional: Administer pre test to measure student background knowlege of Glacier Bay Acoustics. 

Engagement (15 minutes): 

  • Pass out the Video and Vocabulary worksheet to each student and give them a few minutes to answer the questions prior to watching the video.
  • Show students the video Underwater Acoustic Monitoring. As they are watching, the students should write down the researcher's answers to the questions. The video highlights current research in Glacier Bay National Park as researcher Chris Gabriele interacts with local middle school students. The interaction is question and answer format, allowing time to stop and start the video to solicit answers from students.
  • In conclusion, review what the students already knew about sound and what they learned about sound and how scientists study underwater sound.
    • Do they think noise sounds differently on land than under water?
    • Invite children to close their eyes and listen. What sounds do they hear? How do they hear it?
  • Remind them that sound is made when something vibrates. It pushes molecules in a medium (solid, liquid, or gas) to create waves. The waves travel to our ears, and vibrate our eardrums, which helps us hear.   
    • Have students place their hands on the sides of their throats and hum, sing, or talk. Can they feel the vibrations? If possible, pluck a guitar string or rubber band to show them how sound vibrates. 
    • Ask students if they ever threw a rock into a large pond. Upon hitting the surface, small waves move from the rock along the surface of the pond. Explain that this transfer of energy is how sound travels in all mediums whether a gas (air), liquid (water), or a solid.
  • Optional: Can use dominoes to show how molecules transfer energy. 


Investigation (30 minutes):

1. Students will learn to hone their sense of hearing. Divide the students into groups of 3-4 students.

2. Take the class or groups to two different locations where they will be exposed to different sounds varying in volume. Have them sit quietly for 2-3 minutes in each location. Mixing indoor and outdoor locations is ideal. Ask them to write a description of the sounds they hear at each location in their journals.

3. After students complete the listening activity, ask the students to work as a group to share their results and write down at least 10 different sounds on individual sticky notes - one sound per sticky note. Allow five minutes for this.

4. While the students are completing this task, draw four columns on the board: Loud/Low Pitched, Loud/ High Pitched, Soft/Low Pitched, Soft/High Pitched.

5. Ask each group to share their results and place their notes in the appropriate columns on the board. Discuss the various sounds students heard. Ask the students to associate feelings with the sounds they heard. Did some sounds make them feel happy, excited, annoyed, or afraid?

6. Play the five marine mammal audio clips for the class using the "Marine Mammal Audio Clip Links" sheet. Each clip is just one of many different vocalizations each mammal may make. If possible, keep the names or pictures associated with the clips a secret. These may be shown after the listening activity. This should be solely an auditory experience. Remind the students that they are ALL mammals. After each clip, ask students to write the name of the animal they think is making the sound, keeping the clips in order #1-5. You can also make a list on the board as a class. Have them describe the sound. Is it high pitched or low pitched? It is loud or soft? Can they make the sound? Why do you think that animal is making that sound? What do you think the animal is trying to say? 

7.  After all the clips are played and students have had time to discuss, pass out the Marine Mammal Photo Gallery Sheet. Play the clips again and have them write the audio clip number (1-5) in the box beside the animal they think is making that sound. Discuss results.

6. Have them write a brief compare/contrast commentary in their journals on human versus marine animal sounds. How and why do we make sound? How and why do they think marine mammals make sound? How is sound important to the survival of marine mammals? 

Explanation (10 minutes):  

7. After students listen to the sounds clips, they should have an understanding that animals rely on sound for communication. In addition to communication, have them discuss other ways marine mammals use sound for survival (locating and consuming prey, attracting a mate, avoid predators, navigation, interact with their environment). 


  • Acoustics: Study of sound
  • Ambient Noise: Background sounds which are present in a scene or location.
  • Anthropogenic: Human made 
  • Decibel: Unit of measurement for volume
  • Frequency: How frequently the sound wave completes a wave
  • Hydrophone: Device for hearing and recording underwater sounds 
  • Infrasonic: Sound frequencies below human hearing
  • Pitch: Highness or lowness of a sound 
  • Ultrasonic - Sound frequencies over 20,000 hz, above human hearing 

Assessment Materials

Acoustics Post Test

Test to assess comprehension after all three acoustics lessons. This can be partnered with the pre test available under the materials section of this lesson.

Evaluation of comprehension for the 3 acoustics lessons

Download Assessment

Rubric/Answer Key

Acoustics Post Test

Used to measure comprehension from the three acoustics lessons.

Answers to the Acoustics Post Test

Download Rubric/Answer Key

Supports for Struggling Learners

  • Heterogenous grouping 
  • Pause video frequently to allow for students to complete questions 

Enrichment Activities

Try Listening For Yourself Activity: The Humpback Song site provides three audio clips of humpback whale vocalizations that will allow students to compare pitch and frequency. The site also provides in depth information on humpback whale song. Students can also link to it and conduct this activity at home.

Soundscape Constructor Activity: The Soundscape Creator will allow students to construct their own soundscape by choosing their favorite sounds.

Play additional sound clips of natural or human-made sounds heard in the ocean. Choose five clips from the list below that reflect a variety of sounds. Draw five columns on the board and write each sound at the top of each column. As you play the clips, have students write down what emotions they associate with each sound on sticky notes. When the listening activity is complete, have them place their sticky notes in the appropriate columns. Discuss the emotions they associated with the various sounds. In their journals, have students reflect on how this noise might affect marine mammals.

Additional Resources

Glacier Bay Acoustic Monitoring

Discovery of Sound in the Sea Audio Gallery 

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. These are the other lessons in the unit: 

Echolocation in Action 

On the Trail of a Whale

Contact Information

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Last updated: February 27, 2019