Call them Ishmael: Sixth Graders Trek to Cape Cod on A Cross-Curricular Whaling Adventure

Just call them Ishmael! Our sixth graders had an amazing experience as they embarked on their three-day trek to Cape Cod! It was a fabulous adventure to explore whaling — the unit of study they have been exploring in Humanities and Science — in a hands-on, tangible way.  

Before their trip, the students studied the basics of what is called "Yankee Whaling" in Humanities. The students learned the technique of this type of whaling: wind-powered ships that sailed the world's oceans, the lowering of smaller boats when a whale was sighted, then the harpooning, lancing, dragging, and on-board processing of the whale. They learned how the oil was then used to “light and lubricate” the Industrial Revolution. 

They examined the famous painting, "American Progress" by John Gast and, though the painting doesn't suggest this, history tells us that the development that emerges in the wake of this embodiment of America, was, again, lit and lubricated by whale oil. And, interestingly, because these whale ships went out into the Pacific in search of the sperm whales, the whalers were unwittingly laying the foundation for American expansion into the Pacific. 

In Science, the sixth graders studied how Yankee Whaling actually had a minimal effect on global whale populations. Rather, it was 20th century industrial whaling that had an immense effect of global whale populations. The students learned how the techniques changed to mechanized factory ships, mechanized catcher boats, mechanized harpoons, mechanized everything.  It was this era of whaling that nearly brought most whales to the brink of extinction. 

Finally, the students discussed and examined how our thoughts about whales changed. In the early part of the 20th century, whales were "creatures of darkness that brought light to the world." Yet, by the 1970s, these mammals were thought of as conscious beings that perhaps we can communicate with, often described as "Minds in the Water". What a shift!

On their cross-curricular three-day trip, their first stop was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Passive Acoustic Research group at Northeast Fisheries Service Center (NEFSC), where they met with scientists working on passive acoustics work and the impact of sound on the whales in that area. Next up was the mooring lab at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). This mooring group serves a myriad scientific missions with creativity, responsibility, teamwork, and humility. Our sixth graders had a rare opportunity to understand the type of real-world problem-solving needed to protect the whales. 

Back at the camp, Jesse Mechling, Director of Marine Education Center for Coastal Studies, chatted with the group about pioneered disentanglement strategies, derived from historic whaling techniques. And there was time to explore the Cape’s amazing beaches, have fun by the campfire and, of course, make s’mores! 

The second day was a whale watch with the Dolphin Fleet out of Provincetown. For three hours, they watched the light bounce off of the waves. It was uncommonly beautiful…but no whales. It looked like it would be a whaleless experience as the boat turned around and began heading for the harbor. And then a whale emerged from the depths! The boat intercepted a young acrobatic humpback who performed a number of breaches in front of the boat, perhaps 10 from this one whale. The display thrilled the students!

On their third and final day of the trip, the group visited the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the highlight of that visit was handling 19th century logbooks in their research library. This allowed the students to examine and work on their final project for the unit: writing a book. 

The model for this book is a series written by Isaac Asimov. Asimov wrote a number of histories for young adults: Words on a Map, Words from Science, and Words from History. Each is like a free-form encyclopedia: In the case of Words on a Map, an entry on Kuwait is followed by one on Key West which is followed by one on Lebanon and so on. 

Taking this example as a template, the sixth graders are producing a book with the working title: Whales and Whaling: Words from Science, Words from an Industry. Each student was assigned a word and asked to research this word using excellent sources checked out of the collection of the New York Society Library.  The students are getting experience researching from real book sources, taking notes, and then writing from notes. The end result is a 500-750 word entry. Some of our entries: Discovery Expedition, Harpoon, Herman Melville, Imperialism, IWC, Logbook, Nantucket, South Georgia Island, Stern Slipway, and Try Works. In this way, both 19th century and 20th century whaling is covered. All these entries will be combined together in the form of a book.

This trip – getting out of the classroom and into laboratories, onto ships, and within museums – allowed the sixth graders to study in a richer way, creating a deeper level of understanding and connection. We can’t wait to read their book!