MOUNT DESERT ISLAND ─ On Jan. 22 and Feb. 8, Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company invited island elementary school students to participate in The Whalemobile, a virtual program hosted by whale enthusiast Cynde McInnis.
Since the pandemic has made it difficult to take students on field trips to see whales in real life, McInnis has been educating students via Zoom with the help of a realistic, life-sized inflatable whale.
Island classrooms joined McInnis for a presentation about Gulf of Maine whales. Her demonstration showcased the adaptations of different whales and identified their sounds, body parts and behaviors.
Listening to the different recordings of humpback, fin and right whales, the children took turns distinguishing certain species by their sounds. McInnis explained that whales are able to produce sounds using their larynx, a body part located just beyond their huge mouths. McInnis then showed a skeleton of a whale’s mouth that was taller than she was. “That’s about 8- to 10-feet long,” she said.
Students also learned that blubber is a thick layer of tissue under the whale’s skin that has two purposes: to regulate temperature while in colder climates like Maine and as a fat source while in warmer climates like the Caribbean. “When they come to New England super skinny, they pig out … they are skinny [when they come] back from Caribbean and fatten while they are here,” said McInnis. Whales migrate long distances from cold feeding areas to warm, more shallow waters for calving and mating.
McInnis inflated her balloon-like humpback whale replica and virtually walked students inside for a tour. It was explained that baleen whales get all the water they need from the fish that they eat. “The water goes out and they swallow the fish down to their stomach,” McInnis said. A filter-feeding system inside the mouths of humpback and right whales is used to strain sea creatures from the water for ingestion.
“Half of the oxygen we breathe is generated by the phytoplankton that whales help create just by being alive,” said McInnis, who went on to explain that whale excrement helps with the ocean’s production of phytoplankton.
“That’s why the whales, the plankton and the fish are super important, so it’s really important to protect all of it,” she said.
Upon graduating from college in 1994, McInnis interned with Ocean Alliance and Cape Ann Whale Watch of Gloucester, Mass., where she learned about the preservation of whales.
Since then, McInnis has been immersed with whale conservation in many aspects.
She founded The Whalemobile program so kids could learn outdoors or in their own school gyms. The Whalemobile program, which has been traveling to educate children about whales and their impact on the environment, went virtual this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Currently, McInnis is a board member of the nonprofit ocean education organization Aeon for Ocean. She is an adjunct professor at Salem State University where she teaches Environmental Interpretation, Intro to Tourism and a freshman seminar on whales. Two years ago, she co-organized a conservation campaign called 2020 Year of the Right Whale to ensure right whales get the protection they need by 2020.