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The work doesn't end there
After a long and exhausting day on the water you might think a little rest is in order, but the work doesn’t end when we leave the harbor. There are cameras to clean, boat tracks and photos to download, and data to enter.
Here in Australia, we are entering our data into boat logs and sorting through the thousands of photos. What are we looking for in all those photos, you might ask? We are looking for photos that display the ventral, or underside, of the humpback’s fluke. For the humpback, this is the equivalent of our fingerprints. Each day we look for previous sightings of the animals in the days before. This is the process we call within season matching. But, again, the work does not end there. In fact it is just the beginning.
Back in the office, the real work of matching the animals to one another begins. Our catalog of individual humpback whales stands at just under 6,000 and covers 25 years in Australia. Each year, when we return, we look for matches to this main catalog of animals. You might think that we have a computer program to do this for us. This is not so, but fortunately we have learned a few things over the years and have a standard process to help us find our re-sighted animals.
Each fluke, before being added to the catalog, goes through a scoring and typing process. In this manner we determine where in the catalog the animal should be placed. If the fluke is all white in the center it is called a “type 1”, if there is some black pigmentation in the center it is a “type 2” and if the center is all black it is a “type 3”. We further classify the fluke using the pigmentation on the leading (bottom) and trailing (top) edges of the fluke. Because of this typing, we do not have to look in all the binders of photos. We can narrow down the search and cut down on the time it takes to look for a particular animal.
Each time a re-sight is found, it expands our knowledge of the life history of this animal. We can see how many times a female has been seen with a calf (inter-birth ratios), gain an understanding as to the migratory pathways of each animal, and even monitor social and behavioral dynamics from each observed encounter. Sometimes a match is not found, and in this case we have a new animal to add to our catalog.
There are numerous research strategies when it comes to studying long-lived marine mammals such as humpback whales, but we’re proud to say that the photo-identification techniques we employ at Pacific Whale Foundation are as benign and noninvasive as they come. Although a seemingly complicated process, each new fluke addition to our catalog is a well received small pocket of information that further aids in our comprehension of one of the least understood populations of humpbacks in the world.