Identifying individual whales in Iceland

RV Song of the Whale moored outside the Harpa building in Reykjavik ahead of our whale research trip. Photo: © IFAW/Sharon LivermoreOver the last 10 days the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has once again teamed up with our colleagues from Marine Conservation Research to carry out non-invasive whale studies from the Song of the Whale research vessel. This time, our investigations took us to Faxaflói Bay, just off the shores of Reykjavik in Iceland.

This area is of particular interest to IFAW, because it is here that we have been running our 13-year campaign to encourage sustainable, responsible whale watching and to see an end to the cruelty of commercial whaling.

In Faxaflói Bay itself, the area used by whale watching boats is actually protected from whaling activities so when whales are using this part of the bay to feed, socialise or rest, they are safe from the whalers’ harpoons.

However, right on the edge of this ‘sanctuary’ minke whales are being slaughtered in very close proximity to the tourists and locals enjoying whale watching trips.

As part of our research, we want to further investigate where individual whales can be found in this bay. To do this, we are using a well-known and non-invasive technique called photo-identification, or ‘photo ID’. By taking photographs of whales (or dolphins), it is possible to use their distinctive physical characteristics or individual markings to identify each animal.

Then, once individuals have been identified we can compare pictures captured from the whale watching boats to try to find matches in the existing photo-ID catalogue.

By furthering our understanding of where individual whales are found and how they use these important waters, we can then make recommendations about protection for minke whales in the bay, helping to sustain the population for decades to come.

The week was highly successful and we were blessed with good weather, which always greatly increases the chances of spotting whales. Faxaflói Bay is positively teeming with marine life at this time of year, and we had many great sightings from acrobatic white-beaked dolphins swimming alongside enormous humpback whales to graceful minke whales and beautifully ornate puffins.

Worryingly, we also had several ‘sightings’ of the whaling boats on our Automatic Identification System (AIS).

The vessel permit requirements meant we had to remain at least five miles away from these boats, but it was very concerning to see them travelling in the direction of a minke whale we had seen earlier in the day.

A minke whale surfacing in Faxaflói Bay. Photo: ©IFAW/MCR

When it comes to photo ID, minke whales are notoriously challenging because they often have few markings and their dorsal fins can look quite similar from one whale to the next. So it is essential to capture very good quality pictures, ensuring the dorsal fin and flank are visible on both the left and right side of each animal encountered.

This allows researchers to look for small nicks on the fin and distinctive markings or pigmentation on the side of the body to make matches.

Luckily, the great conditions in the bay and number of minke whale encounters meant that we likely got two to three good photo ID shots each day.

Now that the fieldwork is over, the next step will be to compare our pictures with those in the photo ID catalogue that is managed by IceWhale, the collaboration of Icelandic whale watch operators. We hope to find some matches, which will help us ascertain if the same whales are found both within and outside of the ‘safe’ whale watching area.

Of course, if this is the case it would mean that the very minke whales seen by whale watchers in the morning could well be in the sights of the whalers shortly afterwards.

Ironically, tourists visiting Iceland are both sustaining the booming whale watching industry, but are unfortunately also lining the pockets of the whaling industry by tasting whale meat during their visit.

We want to see this change and since 2010, we have been appealing to tourists to ‘Meet Us, Don’t Eat Us’ during their time in Iceland, because whale watching and whaling do not go together.

--SL

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