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  • Writer's pictureElding's research team

Why do we name whales?

Recently we finished our contest “Name a Whale Day 2020”, where we were looking for ideas how to name three humpback whales. The winners were: Zebra, Reika and Doris.

But why we are naming them at all?

First of all, it’s all about research – we collect information to study the animals we observe during our excursion. Whale watching is an amazing business in which we can connect entertainment with access to scientific data and public education. This is what we do on a daily basis – we take you out to sea, where you can watch wild animals in their natural habitat while our guides and researchers collect data and photographs from encounters.

Back on land we process this data. GPS location, behaviour and info about species is added to spread-sheets and photos are used to identify individuals using photo-ID methods. But, to able to find individuals in our files we need to give them a name. The easy and scientific way is a combination of numbers and letters. Thus, the first name of our animals is always two capital letters standing for their Latin initials (LA for white-beaked dolphin, BA for minke whale or MN for humpback whale) and then the date and number of animals seen that day. As an example, the scientific names of our recent winners were: MN19041500, MN19042300 and MN19041100.

So why do we need a second name when we have the scientific one? For the same reason why as kids we were naming our toys, why we are talking to our plants or giving names to cars or other objects we interact with – to give them identity. It is to build personal connections: we are naming animals when we are interested in them as individuals. Remember the book “Little Prince”? - the boy was taking care of a rose and it was more important to him than any other flower like for us are the whales and dolphins with a name because we can relate to them. Giving a name to an object or to an animal awakens our empathy, thus our willingness to take care of it - it is a powerful tool for conservation!

And of course, it is much easier to remember a name rather than a number. Our humpback whale catalogue at the moment consists of more than 500 individuals and with some of them returning time after time, year after year, we remember them by their names and get to know their life story as well as their unique personalities. Our favourite moments are when we are seeing the same individual coming back after a year or few – it’s just like a reconnecting with a friend who you haven’t seen for a while. Or when we are having feedback from other countries and research programmes to learn that “our” whales were seen somewhere else. This winter we learned that Marpiosa was in Guadalupe and Pourquoi pais in Bermuda! Plus, it can be so fun to be creative: we may go by shape of the dorsal fin, scars or unique coloration, thus we have animals named White Snow (humpback with completely white fluke), Oreo (humpback with white fluke and dark edges), Hook (dolphin with hooked dorsal fin), Frankenstine (humpback with many scars that looks like big stiches), Humpie (a minke whale with dorsal fin similar to humpback’s one). Some of them were named after crew members who spotted them first: Þröstur, Vignir, Megan, Baldur, Kolbrún. We are also having plenty of animals with names inspired by pop-culture: Hump Solo, Fluke I am your Father, Obi-Whale Kenobi, Jabba the Hump, Harrison Fjord (yes, we are Star Wars nerds) or: Fin Diesel, Lord Whaledemort, Krill Bill..

Now take lets take a look at our three recently named whales:

See the black stripes on Zebra’s tail, this pattern is called “tooth rake” and they are most likely made by orca teeth. That sounds like a cool story of natural predator-prey interaction and in this case Zebra is not only a survivor but also a winner of that battle! Unfortunately, very similar looking marks on a whale’s body can be made by a boats propeller. Also entanglement leaves marks– can you imagine how difficult it would be for Doris to travel from Caribbean waters up to Iceland, while dragging hundreds of kilos of old fishing gear wrapped tidily around its body? Or how sad would it be to find Reika one day stranded somewhere on the shore with the stomach full of plastic?

Maybe you want to help Reika, Doris and Zebra? So why not take on an eco-friendlier lifestyle? Start recycling for Zebra or buy more local products for Doris! Little steps can go a far!

And the most extraordinary fact for last:

Even whales and dolphins give each other names in their own language!! Scientists observing dolphins discovered years ago that these animals communicate between each other using whistling, one of these whistles being the “signature whistle”. What makes it special is that every dolphin has its own, unique “signature whistle” which they learn when they are growing up and they use it throughout their life. It is the sound they repeat frequently to let other dolphins know “who” is around or calling others by using the “signature whistle” that is their name. Beside dolphins, some “language” evidences are also recorded in sperm whales in which every family group communicates with a special sequence of clicks, which can help scientists to identify the origin of a whale just by listening to them. Using unique sounds for identification of an individual or a group fits very well for our human definition of “a name” so after all, we might have more in common with these fascinating sea creatures that we think.

Next time you are on board an Elding tour, make sure to help us name new individuals by writing down your ideas for whale names and leaving them in our suggestion box! We are curious to see what funny, crazy and inventive ideas you might have..

Article by naturalist Ewa Malinowska




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