Keeping Your Edge in Avalanche Country

by Patrick L. Kennedy

Marine Educator Joanne Jarzobski.
Photo by Julie Kondor

A humpback whale dives near the Spirit of Massachusetts.
Photo by Beth Swineford

Jarzobski's students at the Cape Cod Montessori School paddle canoes on Coonamessett Pond in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

The sun sets on a pair of humpback whales diving in the Gulf of Maine, as seen from the Spirit of Massachusetts.

Under Jarzobski's direction, Montessori students built their own boat, in the process learning lessons in geometry, physics, and natural science. Here, the students take the boat out on Coonamessett Pond.

Photos by Joanne Jarzobski

From her former role as marine education director at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS), in Provincetown, Massachusetts, to her current marine education work with the Cape Cod Montessori School and aboard various whale watching boats, Joanne Jarzobski (CAS’96) has made a career of teaching people to appreciate whales.

"I've seen people cry with joy upon seeing a whale for the first time," says Jarzobski. "And sometimes even the hundredth time. They are magnificent animals and a bit mysterious."

Cetaceans are unique among marine life in that they are mammals, like us. They have lungs and must surface regularly in order to breathe. Members of the largest species—blue whales, which can grow up to 100 feet long and weigh 150 tons—are bigger than the biggest dinosaur that ever walked the Earth. The oldest whales in the ocean—scientists now believe some bowheads live for more than two centuries—are likely older than 36 of our 50 United States. The most musical whale—the humpback—sings complex, often hour-long rhythmic songs containing an amount of information equivalent to that in Homer’s Odyssey. And the loudest of the leviathans—finbacks—can communicate with one another across distances of thousands of miles.

Moreover, “For everything we know about whales, there are 100 things we don’t,” Jarzobski says. “That’s exciting!”

She grew up landlocked in the Midwest. A visit to relatives on Cape Cod sparked a passion in her for the Atlantic and its animals. “My dad took me on a whale watch and I just got hooked,” Jarzobski recalls. “I was fascinated.”

At the College of Arts & Sciences, Jarzobski majored in biology with a specialization in marine science. “Through BU, I got exposed to a little bit of everything,” she says. “I spent a year down in Woods Hole at the Marine Biological Laboratory with BUMP [Boston University Marine Program], so I got to study everything from deep sea fish to chemosensory biology to marine biology and whales.”

From 1997 to 2008, Jarzobski worked for the PCCS, and as its director of marine education, she co-founded and ran MassSail, a series of experiential education programs aboard the Spirit, a 19th-century-style schooner. Under Jarzobski’s direction, high school and college students learned how to navigate celestially, tie knots, and sing sea shanties, and also how to observe whales in their natural habitat, collect oceanographic data, and gather plankton. Her work won her honors, including the 2007 Massachusetts Marine Educator of the Year award.

"If all the whales were gone, it's fair to say that a chain reaction would occur and the entire ecosystem would be impacted."

Through teaching people about whales, Jarzobski hopes to make them care about the sea giants’ plight. Twentieth-century commercial whaling—spotting quarry from airplanes, firing exploding harpoons—almost drove many species to extinction. Though some populations have begun to recover since most countries stopped whaling in the 1960s, the animals are still in danger. “Every year, more than 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die accidentally in entanglements in fishing gear globally,” Jarzobski says.

Landlubbers should be concerned. “If all the whales were gone,” says Jarzobski, “it’s fair to say that a chain reaction would occur and the entire ecosystem would be impacted.” Zooplankton—the tiny creatures many whales eat—might multiply dramatically and, in turn, decimate the plants that they eat, photoplankton—the source of half the oxygen we breathe. “There’s both an intrinsic value and an instrumental value” in whales’ survival.

Today, Jarzobski teaches science and math at the Montessori School in Falmouth. Located on a farm, the unique independent school, which enrolls students from seventh through twelfth grades, focuses on learning by doing—a philosophy that dovetails with Jarzobski’s hands-on approach to teaching science and seamanship. Since starting there in 2008, she’s spearheaded the school’s marine education initiatives, including whale watching trips and boatbuilding projects.

Meanwhile, Jarzobski continues to work as a whale watch naturalist for Captain John Boats in Plymouth and Alpha Whale Watch in Provincetown, teaching passengers about the wonders in our own aquatic backyard. “There can be hundreds of humpbacks out there sometimes, and it’s amazing to get a chance to spend a few hours with them.”


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