Road Trip with a Life-Sized Blowup Whale

By Elizabeth Preston | December 16, 2015 10:52 am

whale in gym

Cynde McInnis arrived in San Francisco for this week’s Society for Marine Mammalogy conference after traveling cross-country with an unusual companion: a 43-foot-long inflatable humpback whale.

McInnis coordinates education for Cape Ann Whale Watch in Massachusetts, which focuses on traditional flesh-and-blood whales. But on the side, she runs a company called The Whalemobile. She drives her blowup cetacean to schools and other sites and uses it to teach people about whales and the environment. The whale is modeled after a real animal she knows well—a female humpback named Nile.

Right now McInnis is halfway through a seven-week tour of the country with her family. The inflatable whale has made stops in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, and Tennessee. After the conference, McInnis will start back across the country with her family and whale, though their plans are still open. I met up with her in San Francisco to talk about the surprises and smells of traveling with a whale. (I’ve edited our conversation.)

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How did you come to own a life-sized inflatable whale?

Fifteen years ago, I wanted to get an Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, add a tail and flippers, and drive around the country teaching people about whales. I’ve wanted to do it since I graduated from college. And then more recently I thought, if I got a really nice inflatable whale, then I could take it into schools. So about three and a half years ago I found this company in Minnesota that had made a couple whales, and they looked really good. I talked to them and we designed it together. I sent in pictures of Nile, her flippers and her tail, and they painted it.

What does this company normally make?

Sports tunnels, or just advertising inflatables, anything like that.

So they weren’t fazed by your request?

No, no. They were very good about it. I was very picky because I really wanted it to look accurate. The first design they gave me had this really goofy smile and I said no, it needs to look a little more realistic than that! So I think they did a fabulous job. Especially the eye, which is my favorite thing to see on a whale watch. The kids get attracted to that too. They’ll go up and they’ll just want to touch it.

What happens at a Whalemobile event?

Usually I do school visits. It’s best in a gym. I do a half-hour presentation, I show them video of Nile, and I talk to them a little bit about whales in Massachusetts. And then I inflate it in front of them. I use the same compressor you’d use to blow up a bounce house. It inflates in 45 seconds, and their reaction to seeing it—it’s like they can’t believe it gets so big.

Then about 20 kids at once can go inside. I had the heart, lungs, stomach, ribs and vertebrae sewn on the inner walls of the whale. So I talk about how whales and humans are similar.

And the whale fits in the car with all of you when it’s deflated?

There’s four of us, my husband and me and my 6- and 9-year-old. We don’t have a lot of other stuff with us! Half the back of the minivan is whale stuff and the other half is travel stuff.

Does it have an overpowering rubbery smell in the car?

It doesn’t anymore. It kind of did in the beginning. Now it smells like feet, because I make the kids take their shoes off when they go inside. I’m really protective of it. I don’t let the kids touch the sides or climb on it.

How have kids responded?

In the Midwest it was interesting, because the questions they asked were different. They were more about size. I think that was because it was not at all in the realm of what they’ve thought about. Even out east, a lot of kids have whale watched, or at least are sort of familiar with it. One of the presentations I did in Indiana, there was an assembly with like 700 students. They had so many questions afterward! It was really fun because they’ve just been engaged and listening and really, really excited.

What do you think they get out of it?

After the kids go in the whale, we talk about ocean trash. I think that’s a threat the kids can relate to. The fact that trash is a problem for animals and it starts in your backyard, we relate that to the kids and talk about what they can do to help. So that’s my main message. It’s about caring about the environment, and using whales as the tool to inspire people to start caring.

For these kids, I don’t expect them to go out and clean up everything in their backyard the next day, although maybe they will. But it sparks something in them, hopefully.

What are your goals for the Whalemobile?

I would love to get a sponsor. It’s a great thing for the kids, but it is hard for the schools to pay for. And I would love to have more of them, more cars and whales.

What’s special about the original Nile?

I’ve seen her every year but one, and I’ve been whale watching since 1994. But the only place she’s been seen, pretty much, is off the coast of Massachusetts. She’s 28, and she’s had five calves at this point.

When I do visits I bring brochures and coupons and try to get kids to come whale watching. I had this five-year-old boy from Holyoke, he came whale watching a week after I had been out there. And he got out of the car in the parking lot and he said, “We’re gonna see Nile today!” And then she was the first whale we saw.

It’s not even something I had anticipated—the kids making this attachment to not just whales, but this actual whale.

kids with whale
Images courtesy of Cynde McInnis.

MORE ABOUT: Animals, Ocean, Pollution
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Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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