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Whale of a Tale

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SHOW 302: A Whale of a Tale

When fishermen working the waters off Newfoundland find whales trapped in their codfish nets, they send out an alert to whale rescuer Jon Lien, who then goes wherever help is needed to untangle the whale from the nets. Unless freed, a whale trapped in a net will die. And for fishermen, a trapped whale can ruin gear worth about a year's earnings. Through his understanding of the issues' complexities, and his willingness to be involved as a spokesman and problem solver, Lien hopes to find ways that allow small-scale fishermen and whales to coexist.

Curriculum Links
Activity: Prints of Whales
Notes & Discussion
Report From the Field: John Lein, Professor of Animal Behavior, Memorial University, Newfoundland



marine mammals,
endangered species,
animal behavior

habit destruction,
animal rights



Most of us will probably never wrestle with a trapped whale in ocean waters, as does Jon Lien, the subject of this FRONTIERS segment, so it's difficult to imagine the real size of a whale. This activity will give you an opportunity to experience the relative size of these marine mammals. You'll be creating a whale-sized drawing from a small-scale diagram.

  • kite string or masking tape
  • wood stakes
  • 3 x 5 cards
  • yard or meter stick
  • chalk or spray paint (optional)

  1. Each grid on the whale graph represents 25 square feet. Measure the size of the blue whale on the graph and record its length and height on a sheet of paper. Measure the size of the humpback whale and record it on your paper.

  2. Devise a method to label every grid in the graph. Tear 3 x 5 cards in half and write all the grid labels on the halves.

  3. Choose one of the whales to draw at full size. Go outside to a field or parking lot, or follow your teacher's instructions to do this activity inside. To set up a grid that will contain the life-sized whale drawing, you will need to scale up the graph on this page. Use stakes to plot the graph corners, then connect with string until you have a life-sized grid system. Place the grid labels in the appropriate squares on the ground.

  4. Work one grid at a time. Use your scale ruler and the drawing on this page to plot stake positions along the line(s) running through your grid. Stakes should be placed 1 linear foot apart except in the case of sharp curves. Transfer those positions to the ground, using the yard stick. Mark the ground using chalk or stakes where required. Connect the marks with string or masking tape.

  5. When all grids are finished, remove the grid string. Just how big is the whale? Try to express its size by comparing it to different items and quantities that could fit inside the shape.

Adult humpbacks (top) can measure from 30 to 50 feet in length; though massive in size, the humpback is still only about half as big as the blue whale, largest of all mammals.

  • This graphing activity helps students envision the massive size of whales, while they also learn about scale and perspective. Form cooperative teams of three students. Have students label the grid with letter and number designations, like those found on street maps, or label it yourself. Download and photocopy the graph. (If you have access to a photocopier that can enlarge, increase the size of the graph.)

  • Assign specific grid sectors to each team. Each grid represents 5' x 5'. Have students make a 1/5-scale ruler to measure accurately within the graph.

  • Make full-size grids with a builder's chalk-line or string. You may wish to reproduce the whale drawings to their natural scale on the grass, a parking lot, or an outside wall of the school or other building (with permission). Drawings can be made permanent with paint or temporary with chalk. You can also use rolls of bulletin board paper. Have students draw on segments and tape them together.

  • You may modify the activity so it can be done in an indoor open area like a gym or tennis court. Masking tape replaces the wood stakes.

  • If the life-size drawing is made in a parking lot, make a dramatic demonstration by driving a car into it. It has been said that the heart of a blue whale is the size of a VW bug!

  • Review the kinds and characteristics of whales and look at the family of cetaceans (marine mammals). Where do dolphins and porpoises fit in? How many kinds of whales can students identify? Does anyone know why the right whale is so named? (because it was the right whale to hunt in the 19th century)

  • This segment of FRONTIERS provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate a dilemma involving economic and environmental issues. Preserving the small-scale fishing culture of Newfoundland is as important to whale rescuer Jon Lien as is saving humpbacks. To Lien, this is not a simple "bumpersticker" issue that pits good guys against bad guys, but a complex problem that touches the economic and cultural fabric of life in Newfoundland, where fishing has been a way of life since the area was settled. It's also a sensitive environmental issue because the endangered humpback is beginning to make a slight rebound in the Newfoundland-Labrador area waters.

  • Construct a role-playing scenario in which students take the various perspectives of environmental activists, government officials, fishermen and their families. Look for similar issues that involve both economics and the environment (see FRONTIERS guide 202 on "Taxol: Promises and Problems," for a related discussion).

  • The overfishing problem off the Newfoundland shore is just one example of what happens when an ecosystem gets out of balance. Have students look for other examples. What natural or unnatural events may have contributed to the problem? What can be done to manage such a situation?

  • Jon Lien's method of freeing trapped whales relies on low-tech tools -- a sharp knife and a sawed-off hockey stick with a hook instead of a blade. Lien's approach can be viewed as an example of creative problem-solving. Have students research the ongoing controversy about dolphins caught in tuna nets; what is the situation, how is it being resolved, and how effective are the efforts? Does buying a can of "dolphin-safe" tuna guarantee that the dolphins will be safe?


Rescuing whales is an unusual activity for a professor, so we asked animal behaviorist Jon Lien how he got started with the rescues that now keep him busy in Newfoundland waters from May to September.

Lien told us that his first close look at a whale came years ago when a humpback became temporarily captured in a puddle in the pack ice. Lien took his students for a close-up view of animal communication, and while observing this fascinating, stranded "brilliant singer," Lien himself became captivated -- by the species.

Sometime later in the 1970s, Lien received a call from a fisherman who had a humpback whale snagged in his gill nets for almost three months while he sought help from numerous organizations. Lien recalls how the fisherman was genuinely distraught and how he himself was appalled at the thought of the endangered mammal trapped without an agency to rescue it.

He attempted the rescue himself, successfully liberating the whale and freeing the nets. Soon other fishermen in the same predicament called him, and Lien subsequently convinced the government to fund a research project. So far he has released more than 600 humpbacks from fishing nets.

Many of the fishermen are quick to view the whales as the source of the problem. Lien's efforts to educate the fishermen make it less likely that they will blame the whales and more likely that they will accept a management plan and adopt such conservation strategies as the whale alarms.

When Lien speaks to mainland environmental groups, he must confront their concerns about the entrapment of endangered humpback whales while communicating the precarious economics of fishing. For a Newfoundland fisherman, an entrapped and thrashing whale can mean the ruin of fishing gear, an investment of approximately $7,000, or close to what the fisherman earns in an average year.

Lien makes a case for finding a solution that protects both the livelihood of the fishermen and the future of the humpback whale.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
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