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Make Your Own Waves On the Whale Wide Web

WhaleNet makes a splash as a useful educational tool

If you haven't had the chance to experience a whale watch at sea, how about a whale watch online?

You may miss the smell of salt air, and the spray of a spouting humpback off the side of a boat, but the educational value of this indoor cyber voyage can be rewarding.

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Anyone interested in these leviathans will find WhaleNet ( well worth a look. And if you like to surf the Net, take a minute to drop anchor, sit back, and reel in a wealth of information, photographs, data, maps, and stories about these magnificent marine animals.

With 20,000 hits a day from almost 100 countries, the site has made quite a splash. Classrooms, in particular, have benefited from its educational curriculum including an animal satellite-tracking program, up-to-date whale-watch data, "Ask A Scientist" feature, and children's interactive stories.

The four-year-old site is funded by the National Science Foundation and managed by Boston-based Wheelock and Simmons Colleges. But the real force behind the scenes is Michael Williamson, the Wheelock environmental studies professor who created the site.

Here in Mr. Williamson's modest office is a world of whales. Hanging on one wall is a large piece of baleen, the hairy fingernail-like substance from a whale's mouth. Suspended from the ceiling is the skeleton of a harbor porpoise. On another wall are detailed sketches of different whale species.

On the desk is a computer monitor showcasing the colorful photos and graphics of WhaleNet. Williamson spends long hours here and at home, dreaming up creative ways to share information on his 200-page Web site.

The former private-school science teacher glows when talking about his work with youngsters. "Whether or not kids know one whale from another doesn't matter," Williamson says. "The important thing is that kids are interested. Whales in the environment - that's the hook that gets them interested and develops reading, geography, and math skills."

Keeping track of Stephanie

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Satellite tracking is especially neat for classroom work, he says. Take Stephanie the seal. She was attached with a satellite tracking device by the New England Aquarium for nine months last year. With the click of a mouse, students can track her migratory route from Nahant, Mass., to the Arctic Circle. They can plot the seal's position, and find out how deep she dives and how fast she swims.

Besides Stephanie, there's also Gooch the harbor seal; harbor porpoises Otis and Bjorn; and elephant seals Mac and Arthur, to name a few.

"We can get a wealth of information about the natural movements of these animals without a human being nearby," Williamson says.

WhaleNet has won a number of awards. It has been labeled the "coolest science site link" by the National Academy Press, publisher for the National Academy of Sciences. The Discovery Channel has chosen the site as a valuable resource for the channel's oceans program this past spring.

WhaleNet will be one of three National Science Foundation exhibitors appearing at Expo '98 in Lisbon, an international environmental exhibit to be held next spring.

Teachers are enthusiastic about the site. Laine Sinkey, a science teacher at the Tower School in Marblehead, Mass., says her students love the site.

"They really have thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think you can really tell because they go home and get on WhaleNet themselves and print out pictures [from the Web site] for us to see and talk about," she says.

Dibbey Olson, a sixth-grade science teacher at the Sandia Prep School in Albuquerque, N. M., had her students work with WhaleNet's whale-watch data - including ocean temperature, weather data, and wind speed - for a unit on migration.

"It's a fantastic tool," Ms. Olson says. "It's well-maintained. It's easily accessible. The people that put it together are easy to get hold of. From a teacher's standpoint, it's an easy site to use."

Lucy the plastic whale

Another big hit with the younger kids is Lucy. She's a 55-foot long, eight-foot diameter model of a whale made of plastic and duct tape. WhaleNet puts together an $8 instruction booklet on how to make the whale as well and features a a slide show of a classroom visit with Lucy on its Web site. Students and teachers can actually walk inside the gigantic inflatable structure when it's done. "The kids get totally blown away," says Williamson.

For the curious-minded, there's "Ask a Scientist." Students e-mail questions to marine scientists around the world. Every two weeks, a different scientist signs on.

Younger children may enjoy the site's interactive stories, such as "A Day on a Whale Watch." Students read the story and answer questions posed in the text by clicking on photos. Slides shows also feature children's art work and special classroom projects.

Williamson's next project is put the entire catalog of all 870 whales identified in the Gulf of Maine on WhaleNet in collaboration with the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. By having access to the identified black-and-white color patterns on humpback "flukes" or tails, WhaleNet users can find out about specific whale's migratory patterns and siting histories. He hopes to finish the project by next fall.

"We'll be the only site in the world to have the humpback whale catalog on the Net for free use," he says.

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