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.

Amanda Hutsel


Sabine Barnum (visitor) says:

Thank you for all the wonderful pictures and your blog!I admire you and your determination.Being a photographer myself I love to follow your journey and the next time I'll be on Maui will do"my own" research again.
Love to look for whales wherever I am at.I envy you and your work although I know it isn't always as glorious as it may seem.
People like you and your team are truly making a difference!
Thanks again!


Beth Salles (visitor) says:

So interesting. You are going to need a bigger storage area soon. The one at your headquarters in Maui when I was there last year was getting full of binders!! Have you been able to determine after all this time in Australia just how many of the documented Humpbacks you have logged may have fallen prey to the whaling industry from Japan? I can't imagine how heartbreaking that would be for you to find out after all your time and research that one of these whales you might have been tracking for years is killed.

Anonymous (visitor) says:

Beth, luckily the Japanese whalers have not been killing humpbacks (at least in Antarctic waters) the last few years due to international outcry. Let's hope it stays that way and they'll stop hunting Minke and Fin whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary soon! And hopefully they'll stop hunting whales in the North Pacific and end the horrible dolphin drives like the one in Taiji as featured in 'The Cove'.

I know when Japan issued themselves the quota of 50 humpbacks they even said that if they came across Migaloo they would kill him too!

Amanda says:

Unfortunately we do not know how many of our cataloged whales have fallen prey to the whalers.  Access to their data remains inaccessible to outside researchers.  Quite a few of the animals have only been documented once and it is sad to think the reason is because they are not around anymore.

Barb (visitor) says:

One Sunday, August 1st my husband and I were fishing off San Miguel (one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA) and we saw three humpback whales. Two adults and one juvenile. We saw a couple fluke up dives and several blows over about a 3-4 hour period. They didn't seem to be traveling anywhere just hanging out there. I didn't get any pics but will try when we go out there in a couple of weeks. Do you think these whales are just staying there until it is time to come to Maui again?

Amanda says:

In the North Pacific, there are three sub-populations of humpback whales.  One breeds off the coast of Japan and there are the whales wintering in Hawaiian waters.  These animals may be the stragglers in the population that winters off the coast of Central America and moves up to the Washington area to feed.