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Ocean Animal Emergency

Classroom Activity

Activity Summary
Students first research five types of marine mammals. They then plot tracking data on a map and determine which of the five species the tracked information represents.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • describe different types of marine mammals.

  • describe how and why marine mammals are tagged with tracking devices.

  • plot longitude and latitude coordinates on a map.

  • draw conclusions about marine mammal behavior based on tracking data.

  • gain an understanding of how tracking technology can be used to obtain scientific knowledge about marine animals and ecosystems.

Suggested Time
Three class periods if all parts are completed


Multimedia Resources

Additional Materials

Tagging and tracking marine animals can provide scientists with valuable information about animal location, behavior, and physiology as well as conditions in ocean ecosystems. Several systems are currently being used to track marine mammals, including satellite/GPS tracking systems, radionavigation tracking systems, and bioacoustic tracking systems.

Satellite transmitters, known as Satellite Relayed Data Loggers, are attached to marine mammals with glue. These transmitters continuously collect, compress, and store data before transmitting the information to a satellite. The data are then relayed to ground stations, which process the information, compute the location from which the message was received, and place the location and raw data in a database. Satellite transmitters, however, usually last less than a year and can cost from about $3,000 to $6,000 per animal.

Radionavigation devices also store and transmit data. However, because radio waves do not travel easily through water, data collected during dives must be stored for later transmission when the animal surfaces. In addition, transmission requires that an antenna be in the "line of sight" of the transmitter, making tracking over long distances difficult.

Bioacoustic tracking methods are based on the fact that different species produce different sounds. Scientists can use underwater listening systems to track not only a variety of marine mammal species, but even individual animals. As with the radionavigation devices, bioacoustic tracking requires that researchers be within range of the animal in order to collect data.


Before the Lesson

  1. Bookmark on student computers the Web sites related to this lesson.

  2. Gather reference materials for students to use.

The Lesson

  1. Have students watch the Tagging Elephant Seals video segment that describes how researchers tag elephant seals with satellite tracking devices (the clip is the second clip on the right-hand side about three-quarters down the page under "Elephant Seals Videos").

  2. After viewing, tell students that different types of tagging devices are used on a variety of marine animals, such as cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses), sea otters, sea turtles, sharks, and fish. Which kind of tag is used depends on several factors, including the range of the animal being tracked and how much time the animal spends above water. Brainstorm with the class some of the data that might be collected from the different types of tags. (Examples include location, diving behavior, swim velocity, and ocean temperature.)

  3. Organize students into five groups and distribute the Diving into Research handout. Assign each group one of the following animals to research:

    1. California Sea Lion
    2. Gray Whale
    3. Harbor Seal
    4. Northern Elephant Seal
    5. Northern Fur Seal

  4. Students should research the following information about their group's animal:

    • The animal's normal range and habitat.
    • The animal's normal breeding season and breeding location.
    • Whether the animal migrates, and, if so, its normal migratory route and season.
    • How much time the animal spends in water versus on land.
    • How quickly the animal swims and/or how far it tends to travel in a day.

  5. Direct students to the following Web sites to begin their research:

    You may also have students visit additional sites or use other reference materials.

  6. Once groups have completed their research, have a student from each group present the group's findings. Instruct the other groups to take notes on each animal as it is presented.

  7. Tell students they will now be plotting real data from a tag that is from one of the types of marine mammals they researched. After they plot the data, they will decide which of the five kinds of animals was tagged and tracked.

  8. Group the class into new teams and distribute copies of the Marine Mammal Tracking Data and Tracking Data Map student handouts. If necessary, review the concepts of longitude and latitude with students. (Longitude and latitude are angular distances that uniquely define points on a sphere, and are used as coordinate systems on maps. Longitude is defined in terms of meridians, which are imaginary half-circles running from pole to pole, and is measured from the Prime Meridian. Longitude angles range from +180 degrees to -180 degrees. Latitude is defined with respect to the equator and ranges from +90 degrees to -90 degrees.)

  9. Have students plot the data from the Tracking Data handout onto the Tracking Data Map. They should label each point with the corresponding date and draw a line connecting the points to show the path of the animal over time.

  10. After student teams have completed their maps, ask the class what they can conclude about the animal's behavior based on its location over time. Help students by guiding them to see the following:

    1. The animal travels between Southern California and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, starting in March and returning in July.
    2. The animal spends most of its time in the deep ocean; however, it does spend time on land in two areas—San Miguel Island, California and Nikolski, Alaska.
    3. The animal spends about a month (May) in one small area of the ocean off the Aleutian Islands.
    4. The animal can move quickly, sometimes covering hundreds of miles in a few days.

  11. Tell students they are now going to try to identify the animal that was tracked based on both the information from the map and the earlier research they conducted in groups. Using all the information they learned about the five types of animals, teams should determine which animal they think is represented by the data set. (The animal represented in the data is the northern elephant seal.) Ask each team to present its reasoning and conclusions. Discuss as a class any differences in the choices made by teams. Why do students think the animal traveled such a great distance? (For food.) How do students' needs for food get met compared to what the northern elephant seal has to do to obtain food? (Students have fairly easy availability to food of many varieties; the northern elephant seal has to travel long distances to find and catch its own food.)

  12. As an extension, have students find and plot data for other animal species and compare the information to discover what each set of data reveals about each kind of animal.

Procedure Tracking Map

Type of animal: northern elephant seal

Map Source: Map generated with Online Map Creation.


The "Ocean Animal Emergency" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards.

Grades 5-8
Life Science

  • Regulation and behavior
  • Science and Technology

  • Understanding about science and technology

  • Classroom Activity Author

    Margy Kuntz has written and edited educational materials for more than 24 years. She has authored numerous educational supplements, basal text materials, and trade books on science, math, and computers.

    Teacher's Guide
    Ocean Animal Emergency

    Interactive Tagging Elephant Seals YouTube Video
    Interactive Introduction to Marine Mammals Web Site
    Interactive Marine Mammal Education Web Site
    Interactive Pinniped Species Information Pages Web Site

    Koch Foundation