Beluga Balancing Act
Students study a population of beluga whales to learn about the environmental issues that the whales currently face. They then work in teams to develop suggestions for how to help protect the population of belugas, which they present in a public service announcement (PSA).
Approximately seven 1-hour class periods
Students will be able to:
- explain the issues that threaten a certain population of beluga whales and its ecosystem.
- compare and contrast the issues facing different populations of beluga whales.
- state the impact humans have had, directly and indirectly, on beluga whale populations.
- name ways that people can help protect beluga whales and the Arctic ecosystem.
Belugas Are Unique and Endangered
The name "beluga" comes from the Russian word "bielo," meaning "white." Belugas are known as the "canaries of the sea" because of the vast range of sounds they produce. They are pinkish brown or dark gray in color when born and gradually turn white as they get older.
Unlike other whales, belugas have flexible necks, allowing them to turn and move their heads. They have a dorsal ridge rather than a dorsal fin, which scientists believe enables the belugas to be more flexible and maneuverable in icy conditions and is also possibly a way for them to preserve heat.
Belugas are found in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, particularly along the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia. Human-induced factors, including vessel traffic, underwater noise, coastal development, industrial pollutants, whale watching and overharvesting, have had a significant impact on the species. In the past, belugas were hunted commercially in considerable numbers. Today, they are hunted only for food by native communities. Environmental contamination is also thought to be a major factor in the decline of beluga populations. All of these factors cause belugas to be more susceptible to their natural predators, polar bears and killer whales. As an important part of the Arctic food chain, it is crucial that beluga populations remain stable in order to maintain a healthy and balanced ecosystem.
Two higher-risk beluga populations are those in the St. Lawrence River estuary, which is currently listed on the Canadian Species at Risk Act, and the Cook Inlet population in Alaska, which was placed on the endangered species list in October 2008. Both of these populations have had significant declines in numbers due to past hunting practices and toxins. The St. Lawrence River beluga population is especially toxic, with 27 percent of adult belugas that are found dead exhibiting cancer. Industrial toxins that come from all over the Great Lakes' watershed concentrate in the sediment at the bottom of the river. The belugas ingest these toxins when they feed in the sediment.
Climate change is another issue with the potential to affect beluga populations, although it is not known how they will be affected or if the impacts will be positive or negative. Less ice in the Arctic may mean that there will be increased primary productivity, which would essentially lead to more food for the belugas. On the other hand, a reduction in ice cover could also mean more shipping, oil exploration, underwater noise and pollution. The health and biodiversity of the Arctic continues to remind us of our connections to and dependence on a healthy planet. The belugas are an indicator of the health of the Arctic ecosystem and the planet as a whole. No matter where we live, our actions affect not only our local environment, but far-off ecosystems as well.
What Can We Do?
Each population of belugas experiences different threats -- here are some general action ideas:
- Help others become aware of the issues belugas face.
- Reduce the amount of toxins that are released in the environment through responsible purchasing and consuming.
- Buy organic fruits and vegetables.
- Purchase recycled and chorine-free paper products.
- Use "green" cleaning products.
- Reduce your own impact by decreasing your energy use so as to not contribute to climate change.
- Turn off the lights when you leave the room and turn off electronics when they are not being used.
- Wear a sweater instead of turning up the heat.
- Walk, ride your bike or take the bus instead of driving.
- Limit consumption of goods. Everything we buy uses energy to be manufactured and fuel to be transported.
For more information, please see the "Additional Resources" section for links to Web sites about beluga whales.
Days 1-2: Introducing Beluga Whales and the PSA Project (pdf)
Use a KWL chart to introduce the topic of beluga whales to students and prepare them for the PSA project. Students also conduct research on a specific population of beluga whales.
Days 3-4: Preparing for the PSA (pdf)
Students learn about the intent and components of a PSA through discussion and by viewing examples. Students plan their own PSA about their assigned population of beluga whales by creating a storyboard.
Days 5-6: Producing and Editing the PSA (pdf)
In groups, students produce and edit their PSAs using a movie-making program. They download images and record narration to use in their project.
Day 7: PSA "Party" (pdf)
Students share their PSAs with the class. They then discuss each of the PSAs, comparing and contrasting the different beluga populations, the issues each population is facing, and the recommended actions to help protect these animals. Assess what students have learned by completing the KWL chart.
Use the provided rubric (pdf) to score and evaluate each student's participation and work during the project.
Have students write a letter to humans as if they were a beluga whale. What would they want humans to know about their life? Their family? Changes to their environment?
RELATED RESOURCES FROM JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU: OCEAN ADVENTURES
"Beluga Whales Under Threat" article
Arctic Animals and a Changing Climate
Learn about the effects of a changing climate on the Arctic ecosystem and four of its well-known mammals: the polar bear, the walrus, the Arctic fox and the beluga whale. This activity guide accompanies the Web video "A Warmer World for Arctic Animals," which can be streamed at http://www.pbs.org/kqed/oceanadventures/video/arcticanimals.
Sea Ghosts Viewing Guide
Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Alaska Fisheries Science Center's National Marine Mammal Laboratory
Canadian Biodiversity Project's Web page on the St. Lawrence beluga whale
Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Futures Society
National Science Education Standards Grades 5-8 (at www.nap.edu)
Science As Inquiry -- Content Standard A:
Abilities Necessary to Do Scientific Inquiry
Life Science -- Content Standard C:
Regulation and Behavior
Populations and Ecosystems
Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives -- Content Standard F:
Populations, Resources and Environments
OCEAN LITERACY ESSENTIAL PRINCIPLES AND FUNDAMENTAL CONCEPTS
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Angie Patterson is a sixth-grade science and math teacher in San Francisco. She is also a member of the Education Advisory Committee for Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures and an independent contractor for KQED Education Network. KQED Education Network uses the power of KQED Public Broadcasting to inspire learning by providing projects for youth and curriculum materials and professional development for teachers, child-care providers and families.
Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures is produced by KQED Public Broadcasting and the Ocean Futures Society. The corporate sponsor is the Dow Chemical Company. Additional major support comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Foundation, KQED Campaign for the Future, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.