Saving the North Atlantic Right Whale - North AmericaDon't fail our whale
who’s who? how researchers identify right whales from photos
With fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales remaining, IFAW’s commissioned research vessel, Song of the Whale, has been tracking these critically endangered marine mammals along their migratory route on the U.S. East Coast since the beginning of the year.
The word “track” encompasses more than might first be imagined. It includes listening for right whales with specialized audio equipment, recording thermal videos based on heat data, or simply photographing them so they can be identified and catalogued—that’s how scientists can count how many are currently in existence.
To the untrained eye, all North Atlantic right whales look pretty much alike. They have stocky dark grey or black bodies with V-shaped blow spouts. They also lack a dorsal fin, normally located on the midline of some whales.
But to the ship’s crew, including a seasoned oceanic scientist like director of Marine Conservation Research International Richard McLanaghan, or expedition veteran and first mate Killian Glynn, every individual whale is unique.
If they could talk—and yes, they do “sing”—right whales would tell us that they can’t stop to pose for a photo or take a selfie. That means it’s up to McLanaghan, Glynn, and their colleagues to seize the moment and photograph them, and then catalog those images.
“Right whales aren’t particularly easy to find at sea,” says Glynn with an understatement, since there are so few, and the sea is enormous.
Once sighted, a photo is the best way to document and identify the whale in question. However, with whales spending 80 percent of their time beneath the surface and surfacing only during brief periods to breathe, photographing them (which usually means photographing just the tops of their heads) is challenging at best.
Right whales have lighter-colored marks on their heads called callosities, which consist of patches of rough skin that help identify them individually. No two whales have the same marking or pattern.
To spot them while onboard Song of the Whale, one crew member occupies the port or left side of an A-frame observation platform behind the ship’s cockpit, and another takes up the starboard or right side. Then they wait.
“Their job is to basically look out on either side and just call any sightings that they see,” Glynn says. “That gets passed on to the person who enters all that data into the computer.”
McLanaghan says that Song of the Whale has added a new thermal or infrared imaging camera mounted high on the mast, which he hopes will provide greater clarity and prove especially helpful at night.
Outside government agencies that also conduct aerial surveys of right whales by flying helicopters and planes in a grid-like pattern can also provide critical information as part of whale conservation collaboration.
As part of a group initiative, photos get emailed to other central agencies that are members of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, which also tracks the whales. The pictures get added to the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog of photo identification curated by the New England Aquarium in Boston.
The expansive collection holds more than 73,000 photographed sightings of right whales since 1935. Each whale is assigned a number, and often, a name like Fermata, or Stumpy, or Quasimodo.
“We're contributing a small piece to the pie, which helps scientists better understand the status of the right whales, the areas they're using or not using, and where they might be feeding, breeding, or giving birth,” says McLanaghan.
“We need to understand everything we can about how they live their lives to be able to better protect them,” he says. “And ultimately, that's what we are trying to do. We are trying to stop their decline and reverse it.”
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