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Welcome Back, Ellen O’Donnell

Teacher at Sea Ellen O’Donnell looks for whales on NOAA Ship Delaware II.

Mother Right Whale and calf swim together.

Additional Resources

Students at Ellen O’Donnell’s school drew the actual size of a North Atlantic Right Whale and the whole 8th grade class fits inside.

RIGHT WHALES—Did you know? 

  • Right whales are the rarest of all large whale species and among the rarest of all marine mammal species.

  • There are only about 300-400 right whales in the North Atlantic.

  • Right whales can weigh up to 70 tons. Unlike other baleen whales, they are are skimmers: they feed by removing prey from the water using baleen while moving with their mouth open through a patch of zooplankton.




















June 28, 2012

This year, 25 teachers from across the country will set out to sea to work and live alongside NOAA scientists through the NOAA Teacher At Sea program—a program that bridges science with education. One of those teachers is Ellen O’Donnell, a middle school science teacher at Deerfield Community School in Deerfield, New Hampshire, who just returned from her at-sea experience studying right whales in the North Atlantic off the coast of New England. She sailed on NOAA Ship Delaware II, a research vessel that conducts fisheries and marine mammal surveys. We asked Ellen to share some highlights from her trip with us. 

Tell us about the research being conducted on the Delaware II
I was on a Northern Right Whale Survey with scientists from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. It was great. Right whales are extremely endangered; there are very few left in the world. The research that was conducted on the Delaware II was to try and find out where and how many of these whales there are. They also needed to take biopsies of certain whales.The scientists biopsied two whales over the course of the trip. During this research cruise the scientists and crew came across a mother Right whale and her calf. This was an exciting find because this particular calf had never been spotted by NOAA scientists before. We were able to get a biopsy from the calf as well which will not only give genetic information from the skin, but also information on contaminants from the mother since it is still nursing.

What was the most exciting thing you learned at sea?
I learned about how much I love the ocean. The ocean is so beautiful and has such power. It made me realize that I hadn’t brought any ocean ecology into the classroom, and I’m excited to do that now. I also learned how to identify different whales, which I had never done before. I was also surprised to learn about all the different things NOAA does.

How did you communicate with your students while you were at sea?
I used the blog platform hosted by Teacher at Sea. My students read my blog while I was at sea and after I returned. My sister and Teacher at Sea alumna, Laura Rodriguez, had her students follow the blog and many of the other teachers at my school had their students follow the trip as well.

How did you integrate your experience into the classroom?
When I came back, I did a presentation to my students about North Atlantic Right Whale research and my experience aboard the Delaware II. In addition, my sister’s class and my class collaborated on a Wiki to learn more about ocean sciences.  The students communicated with each other by sharing ideas, photos, videos, and links through this Wiki site. 

What were your students surprised to learn?
The students were surprised by all the different kinds of whales and the size of the whales.  They also didn’t realize all the pressures that the whales are under because of human activity. 

Do you have any future plans to share this kind of science?
My roommate while on board was Genevieve Davis of NOAA Fisheries Northeast Fisheries Science Center.  She taught me about marine acoustics and I would like to incorporate that into my science class.  Genevieve and I are going to collaborate this summer to create new curriculum pieces for my class.  I will also incorporate ocean ecosystems into my classes whenever possible.                                   

For more information...
In its 22nd year, the Teacher at Sea program has provided more than 600 teachers hands-on marine research experiences varying from fish surveys in Alaskan waters to atmospheric research in the Atlantic Ocean. Upon return, the teachers bring their greater understanding and excitement back to the classroom, giving their students a glimpse into a scientific world that is otherwise inaccessible.

To meet and follow all the 25 teachers that were selected for the 2012 season along on their adventure and learn more about the research cruises that they participate in, follow their blogs at the Teacher at Sea website