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Faxaflói’s humpback whales in 2021: who did we see?

One of the species we often encounter on our tours is the humpback whale. These beautiful whales show a great diversity of behaviours and never cease to surprise both crew and passengers with their acrobatic skills. Last year, 2021, the humpback whale was our most sighted species during the tours; we had over 350 sightings! Photo identification of humpback whales We have been taking photo’s of (almost) all the humpback whales we encounter. These photos are used for photo identification, a non-invasive method in cetacean research used to identify different individuals. To identify the humpback whales, photos are taken of the fluke and dorsal fin. Especially the fluke is a reliable indicator for humpback photo id. The fluke of a humpback is different for each individual. Pigmentation, scars, bite marks and sometimes even missing parts make each fluke almost as unique for humpbacks as fingerprints are for humans. The photos are compared to those in our catalogue. We have been keeping track of the humpback whales in Faxaflói bay since 2007, building a catalogue that now contains over 500 individual humpback whales. When there is a match, the new sighting of this familiar individual is added to the database, so there is a history of this animal's visits to Faxaflói. If no match is found, there is a new individual in the bay and they are added to the catalogue! The dorsal fin is sometimes also used for photo identification of humpback whales, although this is less reliable and often more time-consuming. The dorsal fin can help to discover whether two sightings were the same individual, especially when the animal didn't show the fluke, but identification based on these photos is only reliable when the different photos are taken from the same side and the same angle. For example, the two dorsal fins on the photos below do not appear to be from the same individual at first sight. Upon closer investigation, there are some white dots that look similar, but not conclusive enough. The two dorsal fins belong to the same individual, which was confirmed by the availability of fluke photos.

Photos taken on 18th and 28th of June in 2021. The difference in angle makes a positive match between the two photos difficult. Humpback whale sightings in 2021 In 2021, we have taken photos of 70 to 80 different humpback whales. The exact number is unsure, because in some sightings we only managed to take pictures of the dorsal fins and a reliable identification could not be made. Luckily, there are also a lot of sightings in which we did get a picture of the fluke and we were able to identify 35 different individuals! Four of them were sighted in previous years and were already in our catalogue, including Tattoo. This humpback whale with a very distinguishable fluke was first seen in 2016 and since then almost 90 times, coming back to Iceland every year. Besides this regular, there are also 31 new individuals identified. Some of them were only sighted once, but the top five sighted humpbacks were all seen more than 15 times!


Top 5 sighted whales

The most sighted humpback whale in 2021 is an individual named Neila. This whale was first sighted in May. By the end of the month she seemed to have disappeared from Faxaflói, but in September the very recognisable fluke was spotted again. We continued to see Neila almost 20 times in three months, often in the company of other humpback whales. The whales in the top five all seem to like company. The whale Mariupol has been seen with Neila on at least 4 separate encounters, Davy Jones II was seen with Homer Simpson and Neila, Pepper was even seen with two other humpbacks!

2021's top 5 humpback whales

The photos of the identified humpbacks also get submitted to an online worldwide database. The database compares the photos with humpback whales sighted all over the world and tries to match them. Recently one of the humpbacks we saw two times last years, has also been spotted in the Dominican Republic! This whale, named Daisy, travelled to the Caribbean and was seen back in Iceland 2 years later, an incredible migration of over 12.000 km.

Daisy was seen in many different locations

We hope to continue seeing these whales in 2022. With more and more humpback whales arriving in Iceland for summer, we have already encountered around 30 different humpback whales during our tours so far. These are the preliminary numbers so we are excited to see the eventual number of different individuals we will encounter this year. We have already seen some familiar whales this spring; Neila, Mariupol and Homer Simpson have already been spotted several times in the bay, and these social whales are often treating us to spectacular shows that we hope to see more of throughout the season!

By research assistant Janiek Schrijer


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