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Friday, 06 July 2007 00:00


By Nancy Acton , Royal Gazette, 6 Jul 2007

Then...: This 1978 photograph of a humpback whale's fluke was taken off South Baccalieu lighthouse in Newfoundland by Professor Hal Whitehead. This Spring, Bermudian author and photographer Andrew Stephenson, captured the same whale in local waters during its annual migration from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic.

And now ... a perfect match: The fluke of the same humpback whale, photographed 29 years later in local waters by Bermudian Andrew Stevenson, has been positively identified from among 5,600 images in the Allied Whale catalogue. Fluke markings are as individual as finger prints.

When author and photographer Andrew Stevenson embarked on his current project of making a 50-minute documentary on humpback whales during their annual migration through Bermuda waters, the “script” included recording such details as the mammals’ behaviour, markings and size. Little did he imagine, however, just how important his early footage would be in terms of scientific research.

First came more indications that the starving whales were actually feeding here on their way from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic. Although Teddy Tucker, Dr. Steven Katona and Dr. Greg Stone had written scientific papers indicating that the humpback whales feed here, there was scepticism that the requisite krill were not present in local waters, although local fishermen told Mr. Stevenson otherwise. 

Next came positive identification of Whale No. 1061 by researcher Rosemary Seton of the College of the Atlantic’s Allied Whale Marine Mammal Research Lab, who matched Mr. Stevenson’s photograph of its fluke, taken at Challenger Banks in April this year, with a 1978 photograph in the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue — no mean feat, considering the reference tome contains some 5,600 individual flukes. 

Along with that identification, Mr. Stevenson was delighted to learn that No. 1061 was actually at least 30 years old, and its migratory movements had been tracked for some years.

“What a wonderful thing to know the history behind this whale,” he said at the time.

For many, this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but good fortune was to decree otherwise. 

Recently, Mr. Stevenson visited the Whale Marine Mammal Research Laboratory at Atlantic College in Bar Harbour, Maine for discussions on his project, and also to gather invaluable scientific information.

He emerged from “two fantastic days” with more exciting news and developments than he would ever have thought possible. 

Not only was he offered an array of scientific possibilities, but also he came away with positive identification of yet another humpback whale which he had also photographed earlier this year.

Mr. Stevenson takes up the story.

“One evening, after all of the College of the Atlantic staff had gone home, I sat in the Allied Whale office with their catalogue of some 5,600 whale flukes and tried to identify a particular whale I had both photographed and filmed underwater over a one-week period in Bermuda. At home I had identified him through photographs and underwater video footage taken on April 21, 24, 25 and 27. Sometimes he was with a pod of five, sometimes the pod was seven.


“We stayed with these pods for some hours observing their behaviour. There seemed to be as many as seven of them and they were diving and surfacing together at eight-minute intervals on the same area on the south-east edge of the crown of Challenger Banks.


“I had seen similar behaviour with a pod of five whales at the same location, and on one occasion observed a bubble cloud, similar to the bubble nets humpbacks use when feeding up north.


“There were several splotches of ocean where fish were breaking the surface of the water, obviously fleeing predators. It seemed the whales were co-operatively feeding.


“Having recorded detailed notes of their behaviour over a period of a week, this particular whale was probably the most important one for me to try and match on the Allied Whale catalogue.”


To put his match into perspective, Mr. Stevenson says three students spent their days sitting at computers and trawling through catalogues trying to identify whales — a very time-consuming process with absolutely no guarantee of success.


“Within 15 minutes I had identified this particular whale, so I phoned up the Allied Whale and the College of the Atlantic staff and they immediately came back to the office to see. There was no question about it, my photo and theirs were a match, with over nine points of identification matching on the tail flukes.


“On the back of the original, old black and white photo was the hand-written information on who, where, and when the photo had been taken: 1978 in Newfoundland by Professor Hal Whitehead at the Dalhousie University. The whale had not been identified since then, and it was the longest gap between a matching set of photos that the Allied Whale people had ever had. They were delighted to know that the whale was still alive, and to know that it passed through Bermuda.


“They were also very interested in the fact that I could prove through my own matching photos that it had hung around here for at least a week, because that was a clear indication that it was feeding, especially when the photographs were tied in with my written observations of the four days out of that week that I had identified him here.”


And there was more good news for the Bermudian documentary-maker.


Discussions with staff at Atlantic College led to possibilities for Mr. Stevenson’s documentary on whales, including:


[bul] Skin biopsies to find out whether the whales are feeding on their way up here from the Caribbean;


[bul] Hydrophones which he can leave out at Challenger Banks or South Shore for six months to see if the whales are singing here during the winter, in order to get a better handle on whether Bermuda has a resident whale population;


[bul] and, Special “D-Tags” — a tiny gyroscope which measures the depth, location, and specific movements of whales over an eight-hour period which will give him a complete picture of the whales’ undersea world, and a further good indication of whether they are feeding here.


Mr. Stevenson is also going to have more human help in the years ahead, it seems, which will be a tremendous asset.


“We discussed the possibility of me taking on a graduate student for ten weeks during ‘the whaling season’ for two years to work with me on the project,” he says. “I may also undertake a graduate degree myself to further benefit from the academic input and scientific structure and rigour which this will lend to my film documentary.


“As I learned this spring, 95 percent of my time making this film is spent just bouncing around on the water watching whales, even if I can’t get into the water with them, and this offer provides an invaluable platform to conduct some of these experiments.”


As with many projects, this one is also a case of “the deeper you get into it, the more you need,” so in addition to the special 45-pound camera he purchased which allows him to get right into the water with the whales, and which has yielded great footage thus far, Mr. Stevenson has now purchased a new computer and the latest software to better edit his work.


Finally, Mr. Stevenson has just received more good news from the Smithsonian in Washington, which has expressed interest in his high-definition footage for use in the new 23,000 sq. ft. Ocean Hall, which is being developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in partnership with the Smithsonian, as a way of helping to raise ocean literacy. The exhibit is expected to open in the autumn of 2008 in the National Museum of Natural History, and will run for a term of 20 to 30 years.” Like his documentary, his story is clearly work-in-progress, so more exciting chapters undoubtedly lie ahead.




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