Students Bond Over Whale Project, Marine Studies and Reducing Plastic Debris

With a distinct body shape, large pectoral fins and knobby head, humpbacks whales have long captured people’s imagination and interest. Intelligent and vocal, each humpback population communicates in its own dialect, and males sing songs that can last for 20 minutes and are audible up to 20 miles way. Out of an appreciation and concern for this majestic sea mammal, Mount Madonna School (MMS) fifth graders chose humpback whales as the topic for their in-depth environmental project this year.

Recently the MMS fifth and ninth grade classes visited the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Sanctuary Exploration Center in Santa Cruz. Most grades at MMS are “buddied” with another grade for different activities and projects during the school year; these two grades share a special buddy relationship and collaborate on science-related curriculum throughout the year.

The fifth graders went to the center to learn more about the local whale habitat and the significance of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The ninth graders attended to support their own marine biology class (in preparation for a spring trip to Santa Catalina Island) and a plastic pollution reduction project they are planning.

“When my buddy Ami and I were exploring the sanctuary’s visitor center we learned that the Monterey [Submarine] Canyon is actually as big or bigger than the Grand Canyon,” said fifth grader Tej D’Costa Hemp. “We also learned that trash goes through our streets and gutters and it all ends up in the ocean. Trash goes all the way down in that canyon and that is sad. We have to protect our bay!”

“Our students learned about the perils of a migrating leatherback sea turtle, what a whale fall is and how it generates an entire new habitat in the depths of the ocean,” shared fifth grade teacher Jessica Cambell. “Students were able to drive an underwater ROV model to understand how scientists search the ocean depths, and they learned about the different dangers faced by animals in the marine sanctuary. They watched a short documentary, “One Breath: A Monterey Bay Experience,” about the death and rebirth of the Monterey Bay.”

“I learned how to control an ROV,” commented ninth grader Nadia Rassech, “and found that the interactive exhibits [at the NOAA center] were filled with interesting facts that I hadn’t known. I also enjoyed watching the Monterey Bay video and learning about the Monterey Bay and how much it’s grown.”

Classmate Sara Bautista agreed:

“It was interesting to operate an ROV, and fun to look under the water and explore without getting wet! I also learned different methods of sustainable fishing, and about the work being done to preserve coral reefs.”

Next the students went to nearby Cowell’s Beach and picked up trash, documenting their finds on tally cards which will ultimately be entered into a national database tracking marine debris. Ninth graders use the Litterati app ( to photograph the trash they picked up, tag it by type [and brand if available]. The app then geotags the location of the trash, and includes it in a large online litter database. That information is then used to help make change or understanding use patterns as a way to influence positive change.

“One thing that I really understood after our field trip is that is actually a lot of plastic trash on our own beaches – it isn’t just happening in some far-off land and it’s a threat to all of us” commented fifth grader Colby Culbertson.

“I learned that the Monterey Bay is protected but still it has a lot of threats to it,” said classmate Kadence Lewis. “I really liked the beach clean-up because I felt like we were actually doing something to help the Monterey Bay and the environment.”

To close out this educational service trip, NOAA marine science educators talked about the adaptations of marine mammals in the Monterey Bay and challenged the students to create their own mammals using sand and nearby found objects, as to share some ideas on how their animal would adapt and survive in the wild.

“I learned a lot,” said ninth grader Octavio Moreno. “One of the things that I found most interesting was how whales can feed ecosystems for more than ten years after their death. I appreciate the opportunity to do this field trip with our little buddies. I found it constructive and beneficial for my buddy and me because we could converse about the things we are both interested in, making learning fun.”

“Travelling together provides students with a shared learning experience over a topic both grades are studying and working to make a difference with,” observed Cambell. “Fifth graders were able to use the Litterati app (which wouldn’t be possible on their own due to age requirements), allowing the student buddy teams to engage in a unique way to track litter and interpret data with a goal of making a positive change. Ninth graders answer questions and help their buddies understand the information. Fifth graders have passion, energy and excitement for this topic, which rubs off on their older buddies and engages them on a deeper level than just reading a book or watching a film. Together they see and understand the problem, and separately are working to create positive change. It is affirming to see what a difference fifth and ninth graders can make!”

These two classes will continue meeting throughout the school year to share data, watch documentaries, meet with guest speakers and work on ideas of how to reduce human’s proclivity for single-use plastic. More recently they met with Jackie Nunez of the The Last Plastic Straw organization about her movement in Santa Cruz to reduce the use of plastic straws. Nunez shared suggestions with the students on how they can begin their own effort to reduce single-use plastic.

“My goal for our ninth grade students was for them to gain first-hand knowledge about what a marine sanctuary really is,” explained high school science teacher Nicole Silva. “I want them to understand why we protect it and how important that is, the work that goes into it and what has changed since it has become a sanctuary. Many students see the Monterey Bay currently teeming with life and think it has always been that way; they are surprised to find out that it was a wasteland not that long ago due to overfishing, pollution and hunting of certain keystone species almost to extinction. Students were able to get historical and factual information regarding our watershed, ecosystems within our Monterey Bay and all the competing interests in the health and resources of our bay.

“These high school students love participating in field trips with their fifth grade little buddies, because it gives them an opportunity to be a leader,” she continued. “It gives them a platform to teach the younger students what they know and to partner up in their shared love of the environment. It provides a sense of purpose and a chance to be a positive role model.

“This ties into our curriculum not only because students should understand the biggest ecosystem in which they live – its biology, ecology and physical properties – but how vital and important it is to their everyday lives. We study conservation and community activism to continue to support the health of our Monterey Bay Sanctuary.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, Director of Marketing & Communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.

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