A Whale’s Tale to Tell: Lifesize Replica Gives UMass Boston Students a Lesson in Environmental Humanities

Colleen Locke | Fri Oct 4, 2019

Mellon Foundation Grant Funded Whalemobile Visit

Students in Associate Professor of English Sari Edelstein’s ENG 205 Reading the Whale class aren’t just reading Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick this semester. Last week the students in this interdisciplinary class were out on the ocean looking for whales, and this week they held class inside a replica of a real-life adult female humpback whale named Nile.  

“Taking our cue from Melville’s novel itself, we are reading whales in a range of contexts: historical, scientific, economic, environmental, literary,” Edelstein said. “The Whalemobile offers my students an opportunity to get ‘inside’ the whale—and to take seriously the book’s central concern with how knowledge emerges from multiple perspectives.”

Ocean conservationist Cynde McInnis created the Whalemobile to teach people about whales and the threats they face in today’s oceans. As shown in this video, it takes her just over a minute to get what we’ll call Nile II inflated. First the body takes shape, then we see her eyes, with the fins inflating last. Nile II is as big as a school bus, so McInnis is set up on the first floor of the Campus Center. She asks students to take off their shoes so the scene looked like something you might see outside a ball pit.

English class enters the whale

Nile II deflates a bit as Raphael Fennimore, a graduate student in UMass Boston’s Marine Science and Technology Program who is also working with the class, holds open a flap by a fin to let the students inside. The deflation is normal, McInnis says from inside the whale, assuring concerned students. Once everyone is inside, the lesson that began outside continues. The only light is coming in from the blowhole, so McInnis uses a flashlight as she talks.

“They have three stomachs,” McInnis says, pointing with the flashlight. You can see the other organs too, like the heart and lungs, each with its own distinct color. You can see the whale’s spine and other bones, as well as where it secretes its excrement. “That’s why we need whales—because they fertilize the ocean. They poop at the surface, which puts nutrients back into the ecosystem [for plankton, which] produce more than half the oxygen that we breathe.”

Joe Doyle and others inside the whale

Before the students had class inside the Whalemobile, anyone could go inside, including sophomore Joe Doyle.

“It was really extraordinary,” Doyle said. “I didn’t know what to expect when I went in thereRaphael Fennimore–bones, ribs, three stomachs.”

Last year UMass Boston received a three-year $515,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to implement an ambitious “High Impact Humanities” program to provide undergraduates with opportunities to engage in humanities-focused research, experiential coursework, internships, and community service as a path to student success and career development. This grant funded Nile II’s visit and the whale watch.

“These high-impact experiences have been incredible ways to help students engage with a notoriously difficult text and to realize also how literature can help us read the world around us,” Edelstein said.

UMass Boston class outside the Whalemobile

About UMass Boston
The University of Massachusetts Boston is deeply rooted in the city’s history, yet poised to address the challenges of the future. Recognized for innovative research, metropolitan Boston’s public university offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s 10 colleges and graduate schools serve more than 16,000 students while engaging local and global constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service. To learn more, visit www.umb.edu.