Elding began its dedicated research of the three main encountered species, white-beaked dolphins, minke whales and humpback whales, in the year 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 bay 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. All of this works by the simple method called photo identification. What it means is that photos are taken of distinguishing body parts of the whales, being their dorsal fin and, in the case of the humpback whales, the underside of their fluke (their tail). These all have markings and colourations that are unique to each animal and thus work like a human fingerprint, letting us identify them by comparing photos we have taken in the past to photos we are taking now.
Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeanglia) are a part of the baleen whale family and can be seen in oceans around the world. They occur both in polar and tropical waters, as they are a migratory species. Polar regions serve them as their feeding habitat whereas the subtropical and tropical regions are their birthing grounds. While migrating between these regions, humpback whales can cover incredible distances of up to 25,000 km!! They are loved by whale watchers everywhere as they are famous for their acrobatic jumps, their curiosity and playfulness.
Here in Iceland we encounter the North Atlantic humpback whales. There are actually two further sub-orders, the North Pacific and the Southern Hemisphere humpback whales. What clearly lets us tell apart the North Atlantic from the other two sub-orders is their pectoral fins, or flippers, which are the fins on their sides. These pectoral fins are even the name giving feature of the humpback whales! The name Megaptera is greek and means "giant wing". That is because the pectoral fins grow as long as 1/3 of the entire body length of humpback whales. So a 18 meter long whale can have pectoral fins of 6 meters length! Our North Atlantic humpback whales however have not only the length making the pectoral fins impressive but the colouration. While for all 3 sub-orders of humpbck whales the pectoral fins have a white underside, the pectoral fins of Atlantic humpback whales are white all over! Some even like to say they are like an angels wings.
For our research though the fluke of the humpback whales is their key feature. The underside of them varies from white to black, may have distinctive scars or pigmentations. These features barely or never change during their entire life, which can be up to 95 years, and thus lets us learn about their life history, their migration patterns, even their social behaviour. There are online based, worldwide photo identification websites we collaborate with to find matches on the western side of the Atlantic, for example. But our main focus lies on finding out how many humpback whales visit the bay of Faxaflói as well as Eyjafjörður. Knowing if individuals we have seen in the past return to the same areas every year gives us an idea about how their wellbeing is in these bays, if they find enough food and if they feel save. We can find out how many of the humpback whales sighted in Faxaflói travel up to Eyjafjörður and vice versa. We can even find out if some of them prefer to travel in pairs rather than solitary, as is the more common.
Since 2007 we have successfully collected identifiable images of a total of 510 humpback whales. While some were only seen once, others were encountered multiple times over the years, with the record holder being a humpback we call Þröstur, named after our chief engineer. Since his first sighting on July 2nd, 2015, he has been seen 45 times! A number that will hopefully increase this summer. Since the beginning of 2019, we have added 19 new humpback whales to our catalogue and had nearly just as many known humpback whales returning to Faxaflói. As it is only the beginning of the summer season, we are more than excited to see how many more humpbacks we will be welcoming back and how many we will be meeting for the first time!
Report by head research coordinator Sabrina Voswinkel 29 May 2019