The identification of individual whales, by photographs of the unique, permanent, black and white patterns on the underside of the tail flukes, is the basis for virtually every study of living humpback whales today. The “sampling” of the population through individual photo-identification and the repeat sightings of individual whales, discovered from matching of ID pictures from the same location at different times and between different regions, provide a huge amount of information on which studies are based.

Individual ID and repeat sightings provides the basis for estimates of population size and definition. This technique tells us of length of time whales stay in certain locations, their movements, seasonal range and migratory destinations. Key population parameters such as birth interval and age of sexual maturity can be determined through repeat sighting of individuals over many years. Studies of social organization and behavior are also based on individual identification, allowing the documentation of relationships between animals and the description of individual behavior repertoires.

Humpback whale photo-identification sampling occurs annually in Clayoquot Sound, both through dedicated surveys by researchers and contributions by whale watching operations in the region. All photo-identifications, in conjunction with ID collections from throughout the Pacific will be used to further our understanding of the abundance and behavior of humpbacks whales. This information is critical to development of meaningful management and conservation policies.

Further reading about photo-identification:

  • Whales Through a New Lens, by Erich Hoyt (2015) Hakai Magazine
    Forty years ago, the world’s whale researchers met in Indiana. The now legendary, but nearly forgotten, meeting changed the way scientists and the public see whales—and it all started with a few photographs.

Research Links: