Identifying Individual Whales by their Flukes- YOU CAN NOW CHECK ALL OUR FLUKES ON OUR FLICKR SITE Print E-mail
Written by Andrew Stevenson   

By clicking on the fr logo above left you can access all our fluke IDs!

Allied Whale, the marine mammal research group at College of the Atlantic (COA), is one of the oldest marine mammal research associations in the United States. Founded in 1972 by Dr. Steven Katona and composed of faculty, senior researchers, research associates and students, Allied Whale has been instrumental in establishing research techniques that have been adopted world-wide including the photo-identification of humpbacks and is home of the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue, the YoNAH Catalogue, and the Antarctic Humpback Whale Catalogue.

These researchers have discovered that individual humpbacks can be identified by the black and white patterns on the underside of their flukes, similar to fingerprints for humans. They take pictures called fluke ID's and compare them to ones taken before.

Our Bermuda Fluke Shots gallery is made up of humpback whale fluke shots taken here in Bermuda from 2007 to 2010.

It is incredible to think that a single whale may have been photographed by different people, in different parts of the North Atlantic, often over a period of decades.

Our Matches section gives photographic evidence of cases where Allied Whale has successfully matched our whale flukes shots to their own catalogue. Some of our first Bermuda matches were to whales first sighted thirty years ago that hadn't been seen (or at least photographed and identified) since!

Imagine trying to match a single fluke ID photograph with some 6,500 fluke photographs in a whale catalogue and you'll get an idea of how difficult it really is!

We have taken photographs and identified the flukes of over 200 individual North Atlantic humpback whales since this project began in January 2007. And now Allied Whale has sent us identifying fluke photographs of an additional 146 individual humpback whales photographed here in Bermuda from the sixties to the present. This gives us the identifying fluke photographs of some 350 individual North Atlantic humpback whales. Now when we go out and photograph a fluke we can check within our own fluke catalogue to see if it is a whale that has been here before! And we have our first Bermuda to Bermuda match, a match with a whale photographed by Ken Balcomb in 1977, thirty-two years ago!

With the return of these digital images to Bermuda, we'll attempt to match more of the whales we have been studying over the last two years. This could corroborate my theory that the same whales are returning to Bermuda to aggregate, and may confirm the integrity of family or social units during the second half of their northward migratory crossing. It will be fascinating to see if we can find more matches and even better if we can find a pattern to their sojourn in Bermuda.

Allied Whale at College of the Atlantic has a catalogue of some 7,000 individual North Atlantic humpback whale fluke identification photographs. When a new fluke id is sent in, at least two people have to take that new fluke id through the catalogue to either match it with an existing photograph, or assign it a unique identifying number as a newly identified whale. There has to be at least three points of matching identification. If it is matched, two Allied Whale staff have to confirm the match. To take a new fluke id photgraph through the entire catalogue of 7,000 individual whale ids would take days.

To try to make this process somewhat easier, there are five basic types of whale flukes: 1. Mostly white. 2. 25% white. 3. Half white, half black. 4. 25% black. 5. Mostly black. With some luck, one might only have to look into one type- this would usually only occur in mostly white or black. Often one can eliminate three types, and look through only two types. Sometimes one has to look through three types, especially if not 100% of the fluke can be seen.

Dr Peter Stevick at Allied Whale has come up with some sub-types that can make the process of identification easier. These include- 'typical'; 'eyes white surrounded by black'; 'wide black trailing edge'; 'wide black leading edge'; 'fireworks'; 'white on trailing edge'; 'straightsided'; 'rounded not to notch'.

None of this makes much sense until you see the diagrams below depicting these types and sub-types. Photographs of whale flukes are not always ideal. Sometimes they are dark, sometimes incomplete, often at an angle and not from directly behind, and sometimes the angle of the fluke is not vertical. Often a spash or sunlight refection will obscure part of the fluke. There is no computer software programme that can reliably identify whale flukes. It is still down to the human eye to make the judgement call. Here are the five basic types and the various sub-types.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 06 June 2012 17:35 )
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