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Telling Whales Apart

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Whale Watching | Mammals

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


A continuation of the last blog

My last blog was about how I’d seen the same fin whale fluke three times in the last year. What makes this exciting is that fin whales don’t fluke. If you happen to have read my last blog entry, you might have been wondering how I figured out that it was the same fin whale all three times. This week’s blog is about how I use the pictures I take to tell whales apart!

Different whales have unique characteristics that are used for telling them apart. For example, blue whales can be identified by looking at the markings on their back and dorsal fin as well as the coloration of the underside of the fluke. Fin whales also are identified with their dorsal fins and rarely by their flukes since they are hardly ever seen. Humpback whales are solely identified by the underside of their flukes. Some whales, like killer whales, have very unique saddles around their dorsal fins that are used as well as unique scars and nicks in the actual dorsal fin. All of these characteristics allow scientists to tell whales apart from each other.

This is especially important because it allows scientists to collect important information about the animals. For example, are we seeing the same blues here as up north? Well if we get pictures from here and can match them with pictures from up north, we could say for sure if that whale has traveled and how far. We can also see if the same whales are hanging out together. If we identify the two same whales together every time we see them, maybe there’s more to be learned about that whale’s relationships. These are just a few examples of how photo I.D. is used to help gain vital information about whales.

Photo I.D. is not always an easy thing to do. It can be very tedious work. Basically it’s taking the photos you have and comparing them to other photos you’ve taken to see if you have any matches. There are hundreds of people out there that spend the majority of their time going through dorsal fin pictures and trying to make matches. Eventually scientist are able to create a catalog of the whales they’ve seen, and that seems to make it easier. I’ve talked with a scientist before that knows some pods of killer whales so well, you can tell her what the dorsal fin looks like and she can tell you which whale it is!

Luckily for me, I don’t have a ton of fin whale photos to go through. Like I said, I’ve only ever seen a fin whale fluke three times, so I only had to compare a few pictures. Eventually I’d like to photo I.D. more of the whales we’ve seen, but in the mean time, I’ll just keep sending my photos to the experts so they can use them in their large database! If you’re interested in taking some of your own photos, or even just going along for the ride, join us on our weekly trips!

Telling Whales Apart
By matching the small patches of the whales, we can tell if we're looking at the same one. These two were seen on different days!  | Kera Mathes
Telling Whales Apart
The colors on the bottom of the fluke are unique as well and match with the other fluke shot.  | Kera Mathes
Telling Whales Apart
This fluke and the other match. You can also see a small piece missing from the top left corner of each fluke.  | Kera Mathes

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