By Nathalie Ward, PhD, NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
An International Citizen Science Project for Boaters
© Center for Coastal Studies
Anyone who sees a humpback whale is impressed by its enormity and grace. The size of a city bus, it rises from the sea firing vaporous plumes from its blowhole, and then slowly rolls into the depths, exposing a tiny dorsal fin on top of a small hump. A parting view may be a pair of 15-feet wide tail flukes raised over the water like the outstretched wings of a massive seabird.
Celebrated by Herman Melville as the most “gamesome” of the great whales, theirs is a leisure society that predates ours by some 50 million years. Besides looking for food and feeding in northern latitudes, humpbacks spend the winter months in the warm Caribbean – swimming, cavorting, conversing, wooing the opposite sex and giving birth, then nursing their young. The humpback whale makes one of the longest migrations of any animal. They are international citizens – acknowledging no sovereignty but their own – traveling through international waters of the North Atlantic and the Caribbean without a passport.
NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, within the Gulf of Maine, protects a shared population of almost 1,000 humpback whales that return from their tropical breeding grounds with new calves each spring. This population shows a slowed recovery rate as human impacts such as entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes contribute to mortality throughout their migratory path.
In 2007, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary created the Sister Sanctuary Program to develop strategic, science-based “sister sanctuary relationships” with marine mammal sanctuaries in Bermuda, the Dominican Republic and French and Dutch Antilles to ensure the protection of humpback whales outside U.S. borders, with specific focus on international breeding and mating grounds in the Caribbean and along migration corridors.
Knowing the identity of individual whales can be of critical importance to researchers. Photo-identification is a technique that enables scientists to identify an individual whale anywhere it may travel throughout its life by comparing black and white pigmentation patterns on the underside of the flukes. These marking include natural pigmentation and scars.
Using photo-identification techniques to help monitor the recovery of this endangered species, CARIB Tails is enlisting boaters as citizen scientists to help track the movements of humpback whales between their North Atlantic feeding grounds and their breeding grounds in the Wider Caribbean Region. The project is an international research collaboration between NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, UNEP’s Caribbean Environment Programme’s Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife’s Programme and our conservation partners.
Since the early 1970s, humpback whales in Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary and elsewhere in the Gulf of Maine have been catalogued, not only with formal identification numbers, but also with names. By cataloguing individual humpback whales, scientists can monitor them and gather valuable information about population sizes and migration patterns.
When new photographs of humpback tail flukes are received, they are matched against photographs in the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue, which has been maintained since 1976 by Allied Whale, at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, ME. Information about each whale sighting (such as date, time, and location) is kept in a database. Using these kinds of data, it has been possible to learn that humpbacks mature no earlier than four years of age, may have calves every two years, travel to the Caribbean in winter to mate and give birth, and appear to return to the same northern feeding area each summer.
The Catalogue contains fluke photographs of more than 7,000 individual humpback whales. It is the result of collaboration between scientists, naturalists, citizen scientists and tourists who have contributed photographs of humpbacks from North America, Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Caribbean. Information gained from the Catalogue helps advance understanding of marine mammal conservation and habitat protection, raise public awareness, and motivate marine mammal conservation action and stewardship.
You can help track humpback whale migration with your photographs of humpback flukes. If you see a humpback while cruising, you’ll never forget it. If you take a good photo of its flukes, you can contribute to the conservation of this spectacular animal. For more information, visit caribtails.org.
This Sailors for the Sea Ocean Watch Essay is reprinted with permission. To learn more about Sailors for the Sea, visit sailorsforthesea.org.