From the Field: A Lesson Plan on Marine Mammals and Ocean Exploration

Carissa Cabrera, an ocean conservationist and informal educator, wrote this post.

The ocean generates over half the world’s oxygen, meaning we are dependent on it with nearly every breath. The ocean is also a critical buffer against climate change: it absorbs an estimated 90 percent of the excess heat from the atmosphere. Humans are inextricably connected to the sea, the natural services it provides for our blue planet, and the life that calls it home. Yet, the ocean is still largely unexplored. It is said people know more about space than about deep-ocean ecosystems. The National Geographic Society sparks curiosity, empowers exploration, and inspires change—including related to the ocean, one of its five areas of impact. The curiosity, skills, and tools that National Geographic Explorers rely upon are also essential for young people to grow into future generations of Explorers.

Beginning in September, the National Geographic Society and Ocean Exploration Trust brought together educators, Explorers, and storytellers aboard the E/V Nautilus to lead collaborative exploration projects throughout the islands of Hawai‘i. My team, led by Explorer Matthias Hoffmann-Kuhnt and including Dr. Adam Pack and Abel Ho, focused on exploring marine mammals, specifically the frontier of underwater dolphin communication. Our Marine Mammals team worked together to gather hours of audio recordings, photograph individual dolphins, and share the expedition with the world through a daily field log. As the educator in the group, I knew the charisma of dolphins would be a powerful tool for inspiring students, so I worked with my team at the Conservationist Collective to create a multiday lesson plan for students to immerse themselves in ocean exploration and marine mammal research. The result, a three-day hybrid learning curriculum called “Cetacean Connections,” is available now for you to use in your classroom. Here are three benefits your students could take from it:

1. Explorer Mindset: Cetacean Connections uses short video lessons accompanied by applied activities to bring students along on the expedition with the Marine Mammals team. It breaks down how exploration happens, provides a close-up look at field research, and allows students to practice key components of the Explorer Mindset like scientific inquiry. In days two and three of the lesson, students observe a species of choice, ask questions, and learn how to record the species’ behavior in an ethogram, a tool used by behavioral researchers.

2. Ocean Literacy: Built on the Ocean Literacy Principles, Cetacean Connections caters to students’ interests while sharing the importance of a healthy ocean. The first activity introduces the 20-plus marine mammal species found in Hawai‘i and guides students in conducting background research on their chosen species.

3. Research Skills: One of the goals of Cetacean Connections is to empower students to use the same skills and tools that Explorers use to answer questions about the natural world. It brings the goals of the expedition back to basics: observing surroundings, describing behavior, and sharing findings. Students will finish Cetacean Connections having analyzed real footage produced aboard E/V Nautilus, understanding the Native Hawaiian practice of kilo, or observation, as part of their Explorer skills, and knowing how to ask follow-up questions based on information they’ve gathered about the natural world around them.

Scientific research and expeditions can be intimidating to students, but Cetacean Connections links classrooms to real-world, modern-day ocean exploration in a way that increases accessibility to marine science. Students can see exactly what goes into exploration work, from long nights reviewing media to the successes celebrated on the water. Cetacean Connections offers the chance to bring the excitement of exploration to any classroom so students not only believe they can be Explorers but are empowered to start on that path today.

Cetacean Connections is a three-day lesson plan that is best suited for grades 5-8. It can be adapted based on your classroom’s needs and can be led in the classroom or remotely. You can access the materials here.

The educational resources highlighted in this post are the work of an Explorer-led project and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Geographic Society.

This post is the first in a series featuring educational resources and reflections from members of the National Geographic Society/Ocean Exploration Trust (NGS/OET) expedition teams that studied the biodiversity, marine environment, and maritime heritage of Hawaiʻi from the Exploration Vessel Nautilus in fall 2022. Visit for the latest posts.

Carissa Cabrera is a marine conservationist, sustainability educator, and climate advocate. For the past 10 years, Carissa has focused on ocean recovery efforts related to endangered species, ecosystem restoration, conservation financing, community outreach, and environmental literacy. Carissa’s work, company, and media projects are united by the shared goal to increase accessibility to climate education and accelerate conservation action on a global scale.

Featured image: Carissa Cabrera of the NGS/OET Marine Mammals team collects images of spinner dolphins in the islands of Hawai‘i (Ocean Exploration Trust)

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