TEACHER'S GUIDE- "Sperm Whales of Greece - Life in the Trenches" (Part 2)

Documentary Overview

This is the second of the five-part series "Whales of the Mediterranean Sea".
"Life in the Trenches" is an expedition through the Ionian Sea in search of the little known and endangered Mediterranean Sperm Whale. We join Dr. Alexandros Frantzis of the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute in Greece, onboard the Research Vessel Nereis. In the Ionian Sea, we discover a socializing sperm whale family, and study their behavior as they welcome a newborn calf into the group. However, the future for this calf and its family is uncertain. As their Mediterranean habitat deteriorates due to human pressures, what does the future hold for the most social of the great whales?

The Program-

  • Takes the viewer on an expedition through the Greek waters of the Ionian Sea, in search of the endangered Mediterranean sperm whale.
  • Introduces Greek scientist Dr. Alexandros Frantzis who is working to learn more about these animals.
  • Explains sperm whale distribution on a global scale, and why this species is unique in the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Discovers a species that relies on sound production to survive in the vast, dark depths of the trenches.
  • Explores how sperm whales use the world's largest nose to communicate with each other, and to find food.
  • Spends time with a socializing sperm whale family and their newborn calf, documenting poorly understood behaviors.
  • Discusses the science behind sperm whale research, and how the results may aid in the survival of the species.
  • Explains how a suite of human pressures is threatening the survival of this endangered Mediterranean population.
  • Expresses the urgent need for cooperation and understanding between science, communities, the media and industry in implementing protection measures for this species.

Viewing Ideas-

Before Viewing:

  1. Talk with students about the sperm whale as an air breathing mammal, and how it has evolved as an animal of extremes.
    • Discuss the animal's adaptations to an aquatic environment, in particular its reliance on sound.
    • Look at a map of the Mediterranean Sea and help students locate the Hellenic Trench. Discuss why this favorable sperm whales habitat, and where else you would expect to find this species in the Mediterranean Sea?
    • Discuss why this species is only found in deep water, and where deep water may sometimes be close to shore.
  2. Advise students to consider the following points as they view "A Life in the Trenches"
    • Why are sperm whales found in Greek waters in the Mediterranean Sea?
    • Why are sperm whales only found in deep water?
    • How does this species produce and use sound?
    • What characteristics separate the sperm whales from all other large whales species?
    • Do sperm whales have a culture?
    • Why is it important to collect different types of data. For example, acoustic data and photo identification data?
    • What challenges do sperm whales researchers face?
    • What are the human pressures threatening the survival of sperm whales in this semi-enclosed sea?
    • What can be done to help protect sperm whales and their habitat?
    • What would be lost if the Mediterranean sperm whale were to disappear? Can you make people care?

After Viewing:

  1. Begin a class discussion. Ask students what they think it takes to plan an expedition to find and study sperm whales.
    What are the challenges to research? Consider the following:
    • Season/weather
    • Equipment - finding the animals
    • Ecology of sperm whales
    • Bathymetry of sea floor
  2. Ask students what they think it takes to conserve this endangered species.
    What are the challenges to conservation? Consider the following:
    • Protecting a migratory species
    • Accommodating commercial interests such as shipping and ferries.
    • Enforcement of existing laws to remove illegal fishing gear
    • Getting the conservation message to the public?

Classroom Activity-


Students use information learned about the habits and ecology of sperm whales to select their own study sight around the world. By analyzing data from weather patterns, bathymetric and historical whaling charts, and assuming the roles of scientists, expedition leaders and boat captains, students will plan a research expedition to find sperm whales and decide how to communicate their findings.


  • A Computer (Depending on accessibility, students can work independently, in pairs or groups.)
  • Internet access.
  • Sperm whale fact sheet
  • Whaling charts.
  • Bathymetric charts of chosen study area.
  • Seasonal weather data from chosen study area.
  • Guest speaker.


  1. Students form teams of three. Each is assigned a specific role. For example, Scientist, Expedition Leader and Boat Captain. Their role determines the background research and information they will bring to the team when planning the expedition.
  2. The team will select an area of the world for their expedition and justify why this is likely to be favorable sperm whale habitat.
  3. Team members engage in background research. For example, the scientist is the expert on sperm whale ecology and deep ocean habitat (bathymetry), the expedition leader coordinates the equipment required, and researches whaling history to assist the scientist in determining a location. The boat Captain is responsible for the weather and seasons in your study area, and determining the time of year, duration of the expedition and crew needed. The team will come together and pool their collective resources to plan the expedition in their study area.
  4. Teams outline the data they intend to collect, and what they propose to learn from it.
  5. Teams will identify real time threats existing in their study region, and propose mitigation measures.
  6. Teams will devise a plan on how they intend to convey the results of their research, and the associated conservation issues to a wider audience.

Activity Answer:

Students use what they learned about sperm whales in Greece as a catalyst in designing their own expedition in a region of their choosing. This activity offers students the opportunity to participate in the planning of a scientific research expedition from the classroom, while considering and experiencing many of the challenges faced by real researchers. By selecting a region, students see the connectedness between the unique ecology of a species, their preferred habitat and associated vulnerability. This technology-based activity promotes a wider appreciation and understanding of the complexities required in not only planning a sperm whale research expedition, but considering the requirements of data collection, and ultimately how the conservation message can be communicated effectively to the public. This program can be used as the second component of the five-part series, or as an isolated activity.

Related Resources-



  • Hal Whitehead. Sperm Whales - Social Evolution in the Ocean.
  • Jonathon Gordon - Sperm Whales
  • Herman Melville - Moby Dick
  • Nathanial Philbrick - In the Heart of the Sea.

Classroom Application

The "Life in the Trenches" Activity Program is specifically directed at Grades 9 - 12 biology, geography, oceanography, environmental education, and IT studies. Lateral thinking allows activities encompassing cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) to link into a wide range of secondary curriculum areas. An awareness of other animals, particularly the study of charismatic keynote species, is crucial for students to learn about the issues involved in conservation and how the choices we make affect the world around us. Learning about the lives of other animals changes our 'world view', fosters a sense of responsibility and encourages action. The topic of cetaceans fits most obviously into the science learning area. However, there is ample opportunity to incorporate cetaceans into the geography, English and art frameworks.

Genevieve Johnson has taught middle and high school students in the area of Environmental Education for over 12 years. She has also spent five years as a cetacean field researcher on an around the world science and education expedition. As well as teaching in a classroom, Genevieve designed the 'Class from the Sea' and 'Ocean Encounters' programs, designing curriculum and linking with students around the globe from the research vessel.

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