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Talking Whales and Poo to Children

WDC has recently been visiting schools in South Wales helping children learn about whales and dolphins and their ocean homes. Do whales have belly buttons? Can dolphins talk to whales? Do they get stung when they eat jellyfish?  Can a dolphin die if it eats a balloon or bag? Can a baby dolphin drown if it gets tired? These are a few of the many perceptive questions that our volunteer educators have had to contend with while delivering our lively, hands-on environmental education sessions developed especially for schools. Children are eager to know more about whales and dolphins and have loved taking part in our lively, marine-themed games and activities.  And teachers are happy as the WDC sessions are all curriculum-friendly!

For those unable to visit the new blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum, using 30m of blue rope to measure out the true size of a gigantic blue whale in the playground demonstrates just how mind-bogglingly big they really are.… It is then even more amazing to discover that the blue whale, the largest creature on earth, eats tiny shrimp-like krill, albeit at least 4 tonnes of them every day.

The children also learned that whale poo matters! Whales eat at various depths, but they all poo near the surface. Their poo provides vital nutrients (manure!) for microscopic plants (phytoplankton) that live in the sunlit region just below the waves. Phytoplankton depend on these nutrients to grow, thrive and form the foundation of marine food chains and almost all life in the oceans. In other words, our planet needs whales to stay healthy!

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to search for food using only sound? In the sessions, the children tried hunting like dolphins for themselves, by echolocation.  One child becomes the ‘dolphin’, is blindfolded and tries to catch a ‘fish’ using clicks and listening for the echoes. It becomes more challenging for the dolphin to find enough to eat when noisy boats, played by noisy children, make it difficult to hear echolocation clicks from the fish.

During our visits, each led by an expert WDC education volunteer, the children have been particularly keen to talk about ways they can help reduce threats to whales and dolphins. They want to play a role in improving recycling and reducing plastic litter in their own lives and don’t just see these as adult problems. They have had many ingenious ideas for fishing net designs to stop dolphins being accidentally caught and killed. Most children also immediately empathised with the suffering endured by captive whales and dolphins; they understood that this largely stems from the lack of space in bare, echoey tanks and their enforced separation from their families and natural homes.

At the end of this pilot phase, we will be using feedback from children and teachers to improve our resources and prepare for their wider use in schools. The demand for environmental education for children in England and Wales far outstrips current affordable opportunities for schools; we believe that environmental outreach visits such as these led by WDC could play an important role in filling that gap.

And to answer the first question at least….yes all whales and dolphins have belly buttons – it marks the spot where the umbilical cord connected him or her to their mother in the womb.

WDC would like to thank the Ernest Cook Trust and the Oakdale Trust for supporting this important environmental education and outreach work in schools in England and Wales.