HOW WE IDENTIFY HUMPBACK WHALES

Humpback whales are one of the easiest species of cetacean to identify individuals. As a big, bulky, buoyant whale, it is very common for the humpback to bring up their tail (fluke) above the water surface before going on a longer deeper dive. But why do we study these whales? Well, we want to know more about the animals that our business depends on.

The information gained from regular recordings of Humpbacks in the area allows us to learn a great deal about the local population, a single individual might be identified in multiple localities around Iceland and also at their possible breeding grounds near to the Caribbean Sea. If seen throughout the year it could indicate that the individual is resident or maybe not yet reached sexual maturity. Seen on a yearly basis could also get an idea of longevity as well getting an insight into their social structures, population size, site fidelity, life history, behaviour, and general well being.

The flukes of the humpback whale come in the form of many shapes, sizes, patterns and scars. There are three main parts of the fluke we focus on to identify individuals, pigmentation, distinctive marking (scars) and trailing edge shape. The underside of the fluke is the best part of the whale to photograph to determine their identity. This is  like a human fingerprint, unique to  each and every individual whale. Humpback whales are also generally slow whales and spends long periods at the surface allowing us plenty of time and opportunity to photograph them.  Scars such as teeth rakes from Killer whales and entanglement scars in particular are also a big aid helping us identify individuals. 

Trailing edge shape and fluke tips can also vary a lot, from being broad or narrow. Their fluke can also have been reduced by an injury caused by entanglement, propellers or killer whale attacks.

Pigmentation is any other colour on the body that is not black or white, since they are the two permanent colours that make up the patterns of the tail. The pigmentation colours are generally orange or yellow and are a temporary coating of diatoms (algae).

Distinctive markings is mainly in the form or obvious scars that are usually circular or linear but can be found in other shapes also. Circular scars are mostly formed by parasitic animals that attach themselves to the skin of whales, for example; barnacles, cookie cutter sharks and lamprey. Linear scars can be in the form of tooth raking from killer whales or entanglement in fishing lines/ropes.

The dorsal fin is another feature that is unique to each individual. This fin is situated at the far back and top of the whale's back and can be seen when the whale is swimming at the surface, coming up for a breath or going down for a deep dive. It has a low profile and is generally broad and stubby in shape, with a hump at the front of it (hence the name, humpback whale). 

IF YOU’D LIKE TO LEARN MORE OR ADD TO OUR RESEARCH, CONTACT US VIA EMAIL AT ELDING@ELDING.IS

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