Maritime Maths: Navigating Numbers with Whale Migration on Australia’s East Coast

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Whale migration is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring phenomena. At the moment, humpback whales are travelling thousands of kilometres along Australia’s east and west coast, moving to warmer waters. It’s not only in Australia that this great migration is taking place – in South Africa, southern right whales have also started to migrate. They also migrate around the coast of Canada and America at other times of the year. 

Living in Sydney, I am so lucky to be able to travel to the coast and try my luck in spotting whales from the shore! At the weekend, there were so many families all out to try their luck at spotting whales. This mass migration is not only spectacular but also a fantastic opportunity to incorporate mathematical learning activities for you and your children.

The Journey of Giants

From around May, the humpback whales start their epic annual expedition, leaving the chilly, nutrient-rich Antarctic waters to move to warmer waters where they mate and give birth. This journey covers an impressive 5000 km (one way) and is one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom.

Bringing Maths to Life

So, how can this epic journey ignite your child’s interest in maths? Let’s dive into our treasure trove of exciting activities! 

Nautical Navigation

Challenge your child to calculate the round trip distance that the whales cover. There are lots of maps on the internet showing the different migration routes – are some shorter than others? 

Find out how long the average whale lives and therefore how far they travel in a lifetime.  Compare this to how many times around the world this is or how many times they would travel between two cities of their choice.

Compare the distances of the annual migration of whales with other great migrations such as the wildebeest in Africa and the caribou in Canada and Alaska.

Speed and Time Tides

The whale migration is a really great way to introduce the concept of speed, time and distance.

Challenge your child to estimate how long the entire journey will take without any rest (for this 5 mph may be an easier calculation to work with). They can then compare this with the average length of the migration.

Humpback whales travel at an average speed of 8 km/h (5 mph). For a younger child, they could try and walk/run/cycle at a similar speed and see how the distance they would cover in a minute, etc. This gives your child a deeper understanding of the journey and the speed that the whales are travelling.

For older children, with the knowledge of how far the whales travel and the duration of their migration, challenge them to calculate the average speed of the whales. For example, if a whale travels 5000km in 2 months, what is its average speed in kilometres per day or per hour?

Whale of a comparison

Humpback whales are enormous creatures, with an average length of 15 metres, other whales are even longer! It is so hard to comprehend the length and size of these incredible mammals. In the Natural History Museum, London, there is a skeleton hanging from the ceiling of a blue whale – only when I saw this could I really gain a perspective on its size (see here). These suggested activities will help your child comprehend the size of a humpback whale (and other animals).

Using chalk, encourage your child to measure out the length of a humpback whale. How many steps would it take them to walk from one end to the other? How many of their pet dog or cat placed end to end would it take to be the same length? What about their favourite toy? Which famous buildings are similar sizes? You could extend this to other animals including the largest – the Antarctic Blue Whale which is around double the size of a humpback whale!

Challenge your child to work out how many of them they would need to be the same weight as a humpback whale!

Challenge your child to find the longest, heaviest, lightest, slowest, fastest,etc animals in the world. They could print out pictures and create Top Trump cards with their facts and play Top Trumps with others – a really popular game with my students!

Mapping skills

Children love to look at maps of the world and looking at the whale migration is a great way to introduce some basic understanding of how maps work.

Talk about the concept of scale on the map and ask your child to measure the distance of the migration on a ruler and the map’s scale

Discuss basic directions with your child (north, south, east and west) and talk about the direction the whales are travelling.

Population graphing

The good news is that the humpback whale population has been increasing over the years. Alongside talking about why this could be happening, it gives a great opportunity to create graphs to represent the information. 

Using pictures of humpback whales, your child could create a pictogram to show the increase.

Another graph to create is a simple bar chart using ribbon at home. It also gives a great opportunity to discuss scale.

For older students, they could look at the range of different graphs found at the New York Times and think about a way they would like to represent the data they have found.

They may be able to find information about how many whale sightings there are each day and find the average over different time periods. If there is information about the sizes, number in a pod, that too could be represented in a graph.

Shape spotting

Whale watching is a great chance for younger learners to dive into some basic geometry. Inspire your child to draw or make models of whales, identifying the different shapes such as the ovals and triangles in the whale’s body.

All these activities not only make maths fun and engaging, but they also give your child a sense of wonderment about nature. If you are able to go and watch these majestic creatures breach and blow, remember that it is also a great opportunity to have positive conversations about maths with your child.

If you would like further information about how Confidence 121 provides maths tuition for students, please do get in touch either through the contact form or via email at

Catherine Rooke

A specialist international maths tutor helping children with maths anxiety, maths difficulties and dyscalculia have positive maths experiences.