High-tech backpacks open world of whales to deaf students In this Tuesday, March 14, 2017 photo, hearing impaired student Katherine Arias, center, places her hand on a Subpac backpack to feel the melodies of previously recorded whale sounds as she describes the vibrations with her hands, during a whale watching tour near Samana, Dominican Republic. (AP Photo/Tatiana Fernandez)
High-tech backpacks open world of whales to deaf students
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Every winter, whale-watching excursions take tourists to ride alongside humpbacks frolicking in the Caribbean. One voyage in March pursued whales for their mysterious, multi-octave songs. But it featured passengers who didn't hear the grunting and squealing.
 
The dozens of deaf students wore high-tech backpacks that turn whale songs into vibrations. They opened the world of whales to children who gasped and marveled at feeling the sounds for the first time.
 
"When I first felt the vibration, I felt it in my heart," said Nicole Duran, 15. She is a student at the St. Rose Institute for Deaf Assistance in Santo Domingo. It is in the Dominican Republic. "It reminded me of a heartbeat," she said through a sign language interpreter.
 
Nicole was among 47 students on the field trip from Santo Domingo. It is the capital and on the south coast. The trip went to Samana province on the north coast, a three-hour bus ride.
 
In grades 7 through 12, the children used their hands to express the thumps, pings and gentle massage they felt on their skin. Stretching their arms high and low to follow the varying tones they sensed, the students opened and closed their hands rapidly to express strong impacts.
 
"I feel the pulses. It's like boom, boom, boom!" Melissa Castillos, 18, said aboard a 48-foot, power catamaran in the Bay of Samana. "I've seen photos and videos of whales. But this is the real thing."
 
The migration of several thousand humpbacks from the northern Gulf of Maine to the Dominican coast brings some 50,000 tourists to the area from January through March. This is according to the Tourism Ministry. For three consecutive years, the visitors have included children and teachers from several Dominican schools.
 
Introducing deaf and hearing-impaired students to the whales and their music was the vision of Dominican artist and musician Maria Batlle, 34. In 2013, she founded the Muse Seek Project. Her nonprofit's goals include using music as an educational tool for deaf children.
 
Batlle said she learned in 2014 of the Subpac technology, developed for music producers and aficionados by a Los Angeles company. A year later, the devices were incorporated into a music program Batlle launched for the 500-student National School for the Deaf. It is in Santo Domingo.
 
The annual whale migration to the Dominican Republic made it a natural learning opportunity for students interested in marine life, Batlle said.
 
"They learn about whale behavior, anatomy, the environment," she said. "They learn why the whales come here, what they do when they're here. They learn to appreciate why whale watching is important. And why whale hunting should stop."
 
Passengers aboard this year's voyage included teachers, students and guests. They came from four academic institutions. Eric Quinlan, originally from Brockton, Massachusetts, and teacher of English and sign language at the 200-student St. Rose school, served as interpreter for the deaf passengers.
 
"Being deaf, the students are never really going to know what sound is. But to experience it this way is just awesome," Quinlan said as the boat trailed a pod of six adult whales.
 
Quinlan also interpreted in February. That is when Batlle took 40 deaf students to see the hit musical "La La Land." Instead of high-tech gear, each child held a simple balloon. It vibrated to the music and dialogue. It was the first sign-language interpretation at a Dominican cinema, Batlle said.
 
In 2016, ornithologist Richard Prum, a hearing-impaired professor at Yale University, lectured deaf students about birds and their melodies. It was another blending of education and music, Batlle added. And just for fun in 2016, she organized a beachfront silent disco. Deaf students danced to the rhythms they felt through the wearable technology.
 
In another first for deaf services, the Popular Savings and Loan Association, a Muse Seek partner, has a bilingual (Spanish-sign language) employee in each branch, Batlle said.
 
While the whale excursions in 2015 and 2016 picked up clear melodies from the humpbacks, the hydrophone lowered from the boat on this trip mostly transmitted the static of rough seas. Ready with Plan B, Batlle used a recording of last year's robust melodies instead.
 
Reveling in the sight of humpbacks and the pulses of last year's songs, the students expressed sheer delight.
 
"How emotional. How beautiful," David Montero, 17, said through animated signing. "This is my first time in Samana, the first time I ever saw a whale. And to know they sing. Wow! It's super!"

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How does vibration relate to the sounds most people hear?
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COMMENTS (59)
  • kirshaunm-orv
    4/05/2017 - 01:14 p.m.

    I thought this article was very cool because this backpack alows deaf peoploe too hear whales! Imagine what else could be downloaded too an backpack?
    This article reminded me of the other glasses that help the blind see. It's cool that there are inventors inventing invensions like these that can help others.

  • dallasr-kut
    4/05/2017 - 07:13 p.m.

    Like wave vibrations that I learned about in science. The sound travels in vibrations so it is the same thing

  • jaket-
    4/06/2017 - 08:33 a.m.

    I never knew how cool this was

  • brandons33446-
    4/06/2017 - 08:37 a.m.

    When there is sound it creates a sound wave which cause vibration so when there is a loud boom the balloon will vibrate.

  • rileys4-har
    4/06/2017 - 10:54 a.m.

    Vibration relates the sounds most people hear because a sound wave is a transfer of energy as it travels away from a vibrating source. Sound waves are formed when a vibrating object causes the surrounding medium to vibrate. I think that it is interesting on how deaf people can use this technique to relate to the sounds we can hear.

  • charliet-orv
    4/06/2017 - 02:10 p.m.

    Because sound is vibration traveling through the air. That's why you feel vibrations when thunder roars.

  • Isaac-mar1
    4/06/2017 - 04:20 p.m.

    Deaf students in the dominican republic use a technologically advanced back pack to listen to the song of whales.

  • nathanm14-ste
    4/07/2017 - 01:26 p.m.

    This is awesome. My girlfriend is deaf and there is a world of things that they are missing out on that are just everyday things to us. It is important that we make it as easy as possible for them to get these same sensations.

  • hayleel-ste
    4/07/2017 - 01:57 p.m.

    This would be awesome and a great experience for the deaf people. Having deaf people in my school it would be cool to watch them experience the world.

  • brianac-bur
    4/10/2017 - 10:51 a.m.

    Vibrations relate to most sounds people hear because, they hear and feel this back and forth movement and it helps those kids know its real. I think that this is a great idea because, people who are deaf can't listen to anything in the world but using the back packs could make them feel like they can hear.

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