Elding began its dedicated research of the three main encountered species, white-beaked dolphins, minke whales and humpback whales, back in 2007. Our research area is within the bay of Faxaflói, just outside of Reykjavík, and is conducted during our daily whale watching tours. In the year 2016, we expanded our whale watching tours to Akureyri, a city in North Iceland, and also began conducting research in the fjord of Eyjafjörður. This expansion has been a great addition to our research as we can now also track movements of the species along Iceland's west coast.
We photograph any distinguishable features like notches, nicks and indentations in the dorsal fins of whales and dolphins. Also patterns on the underside of the fluke of humpback whales and even mottling, scars, teeth rakes and obvious discolouration on the body are characteristic features that are unique to each individual. This means they work like a fingerprint for humans and we can identify them their entire lifetime! Once photos are processed, the comparison begins. We have collected and catalogued photos since 2007 and compare each new photo we take to our old ones. Sometimes we find what is called "a match", so the new photo is of an individual we have seen in the past, and other times we have a "no match". Then we add this new individual to our catalogue. Needless to say, the catalogue keeps growing daily!
How We Identify Whales
To research whales and dolphins, summarised under the name cetaceans, it does not require highly modern and expensive technology, research vessels and scientists with a PhD. At Elding we are able to collect viable data to better our understanding of cetaceans around Iceland simply by taking photos during our whale watching tours.
Of course, these photos need to be of good quality and at certain angles for them to be useful and they require a lot of time to analyse. Every summer, Elding offers young students to learn the basics of cetacean research and help us with collecting and processing data. Not only is this a great help to enlarge our knowledge about cetaceans, but it is often also the first hands-on experience for the students.
But there is so much more we can get out of this "photo identification" and "matching". It can help us understand migration paths if there are matches between Iceland and other countries around the world. We can find out about social associations as well if it turns out that certain individuals always are seen together. We can even estimate age and population size!
Over the years we have not only collected a plethora of viable information for our own database but also began collaborating with other researchers and research projects, both locally and internationally. We have found this to be a great way to build networks and strengthen our research!
By having our whale watching tours incorporate essential data collection by our researchers, we always thrive to do our best possible to help better understand these incredible animals. Ultimately, knowledge is the key to improve protection and conservation of such magical creatures.