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Kids at the Brooks School in Lincoln, Massachusetts speak with the crew of the R/V Odyssey in Sri Lanka.
Photo: Cynde Bierman

May 27, 2003
Young Scientist Program
  Real Audio Report

Log Transcript

This is Genevieve Johnson speaking to you from the Odyssey in Sri Lanka.

Last Friday was the launch of the Ocean Alliance - 'Young Scientist Program', which was conducted with the Grade 6 students at the Brooks School in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Between 8pm and midnight Sri Lankan time, the Odyssey crew received phone calls and spoke with 4 groups of sixth grader's direct from their classroom over 8,000 miles away.

The Young Scientist program is an educational initiative developed by the Ocean Alliance that allows students to participate in real scientific research and exploration from the classroom while communicating with researchers in the field onboard the Odyssey.

Cynde Bierman, a naturalist and educator of the Ocean Alliance, is working with the students at the school over the next month. The children are using information learned about the habits of sperm whales, analysing data from weather, bathymetric and historical whaling charts, and assuming the roles of scientists, expedition leaders and boat captains, in order to assist the Odyssey crew in planning our route and ultimately finding whales.

The program began when the students were introduced to the Odyssey crew and had the opportunity to ask questions via a telephone conference. As always, talking with students reaffirms our belief that it is only through educating and creating awareness in the younger generation, that they will become excited about the oceans and interested enough to want to make a difference to its health and the long term survival of it's inhabitants.

At the chart table in the pilot house, Genevieve Johnson speaks with students from the R/V Odyssey in the Gulf of Mannar, Sri Lanka.

Meet the crew onboard the R/V Odyssey
Photo: Chris Johnson

Questions from children are always a pleasure to answer. They are insightful, inquisitive and laced with an enthusiasm that is characteristic of young curious minds.

Do you see whales everyday?
How do you know where to look for them?
Do you see more than one species in the same area?
Do you enjoy your jobs and do you get seasick in rough weather?
Have you ever seen a giant squid?
and -
Why is a sperm whale called a sperm whale?
This is probably our most frequently asked question.

The crew thoroughly enjoys the chance to talk with children. We believe that creating the opportunity for them to communicate with researchers in the field, while taking an active role in the science of planning parts of the expedition, is a powerful educational tool that enables students to learn through experience.

At the conclusion of the first session, we asked Cynde what the atmosphere was like in the classroom.

Cynde Bierman - Ocean Alliance Educator & Head Naturalist: Cape Anne Whale Watch

    "When we called the Odyssey, the students went completely silent. I told them that every noise they made would be heard on the boat's end so they all had to be very quiet. Can you imagine 6th graders being quiet? Well, they were. Then they each came up to the phone, introduced themselves and asked their question.

    It was so exciting to watch their facial expressions.
    One student asked - "What time is it where the Odyssey is?"
    Gen's response was, "about five minutes to midnight." The students' eyebrows all lifted at the same time and they giggled realizing how far away the crew actually was from them here in the United States. As soon as we hung up the phone I heard remarks like, "Wow, that was so cool!" and "I can't wait to talk to them again."

    I was so excited to see the students' responses that I had tears in my eyes. They are just so thrilled to be participating in this program. We are all looking forward to the next 4 weeks."

Eight hours after speaking with the students, the crew found a group of 15 sperm whales.
Photo: Chris Johnson

Only hours after speaking with the children, we encountered a group of 15 - 20 sperm whales that we tracked through the night. By daylight we were among them, only 12 miles offshore along the continental shelf and 65 miles northwest of Colombo in the Gulf of Mannar.

However, the weather was not in our favor and the winds averaged 20 - 25 knots. The seas whipped up into a frenzy of short waves and large swells, the kind of seas that always make life challenging when tracking sperm whales; they seem to have a curious habit of swimming directly into the wind. Fortunately, with persistence and teamwork, combined with a little luck, we collected 15 biopsy samples from the group that included one enormous adult male. Peter estimated the bull to be at least 50 feet in length and perhaps 45 tons in weight. As he swam across our bow, the crew leaned over the handrail amazed by his size. His massive grey, scarred nose was one third of his entire body length. He drifted by unhurried, before raising his spectacular flukes not more than 5 meters from the bow, then disappeared silently beneath the surface. The crew is always in awe of seeing such an animal; indeed all of us had goose bumps!

It is always a pleasure to share our experiences with students, and we particularly look forward to the sixth graders of the Brooks school joining our research team over the next four weeks. Together we aim to find whales and learn more about their role in the ecosystem in Sri Lankan waters.


  • The crew conducted a live videoconference with students at the Melbourne Zoo in Australia - click here to read more.
  • In Sri Lanka, the crew has documented many whale species on the west and southeast coast so far. Read about Sperm whales, Blue whales and Risso's dolphins encounters.
  • What did the crew report on one year ago as the crew arrived in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands?
    Two years ago in Papua New Guinea?
    Three years ago in the Galapagos Islands? -> Real Video: > 56k > 200k
  • For more information about the Young Scientist program, email the Ocean Alliance.

Written by Genevieve Johnson

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