Puzzle Pieces

Want a glimpse into the world of trying to study Humpbacks as individuals?

It’s key to everything we do. If we can’t recognize the whales as individuals, we can’t count them; or know their range; or determine rate of entanglement; or study what feeding strategies they use, etc. etc. etc.!

Often it’s easy. Sometimes it’s not.

In this blog we share two examples of how puzzle pieces come together so that we can better understand Humpback Whales. It’s hoped that these examples give a sense of how much effort and collaboration is involved in studying these far-ranging giants and – how the contribution of sightings can provide us with essential puzzle pieces.

Puzzle #1 

On the evening of August 25th two Humpbacks were in Comox Harbour and generated a lot of concern. Boats and jet skis were reportedly travelling at high speed near the whales. Public concern about the safety of the whales led to media attention and additional opportunities for us to provide education about safe boater behaviour around Humpbacks. We are so grateful too that people cared enough to sponsor MERS “See a Blow? Go Slow!” signage for Comox Harbour.

It was an important sighting and we hoped to be able to determine who the whales were. Thankfully, Peter Hamilton of Lifeforce contacted MERS with photos of the whales.

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The following fluke shot allowed Alison Ogilvie of MERS to ID one of the whales.

fb-memes-005The photo shows enough features of the whale’s tail for Alison to recognize “Towers” (BCX1239).

We nickname the Humpbacks for distinctive features. In this case, see the two distinctive peaks on the right side of the trailing edge of the tail that inspired the name “Towers”? (See our ID photo above).

But the second whale – who was s/he? While we can often recognize individual Humpbacks from their dorsal fins, we had never documented a whale with this dorsal fin before.

Whale #2. Even though the whale has a very distinctive dorsal fin, we could not ID the whale as we had not documented it before.

Whale #2. Even though the whale has a very distinctive dorsal fin, we could not ID the whale as we had not documented him/her before.

Months passed. Then, on December 11th, we got reports of two Humpbacks travelling past Alert Bay to the north. Jared Towers of MERS and volunteer Muriel Halle were able to get ID photos. Look at the distinctive dorsal fin! It’s the same whale that had been in Comox Harbour on August 25th.

fb-memes-001They were able to get a fluke shot whereby we now have the ability to recognize this whale in the future (see below). S/he has been nicknamed “Bullet” for the distinctive circle-like shape on the trailing edge of the right fluke (upper third).

fb-memes-009Even though this is an adult Humpback, the August 25th sighting in Comox Harbour may be the first known documentation of this whale. To date we do not know of any prior sightings by our colleagues studying Humpbacks in other areas on BC’s coast. We anticipate however that we will get more pieces of the puzzle in the future.

Puzzle #2

Here’s a puzzle with pieces dating back to 1996! That’s the first known documentation of “Kappa” (BCX0158). The knowledge comes from a photo given to MERS by data contributor, Bruce Paterson. Kappa was nicknamed by for the “K” marking

Through the work of others we know :

  • Kappa migrates to Hawaii! Documented in March 2004 in Maui as part of the SPLASH Project.
  • Kappa is female! She was sighted with a calf in Maui in 2004 and was seen repeatedly with the calf in BC as well from July to September 2005. This includes documentation off SW Vancouver Island by Brian Gisborne for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
  • Addition sightings include her repeatedly being in Washington State.
    • The first documentation there was in October 1997 as reported by the Cascadia Research Collective (catalogued as CRC-13576).
    • The last known documentation of Kappa in Washington was on December 4, 2016 by Heather McIntyre of Maya’s Whale Watching as relayed to the citizen science site known as “Happy Whale“.

And then .  . then there was this past December 30th. Again we got reports of two Humpbacks traveling past Alert Bay, heading north. Again, Jared was able to get photos.

When those photos were relayed, one of us may almost have fallen off her chair. It was Kappa, the first known sighting of her around NE Vancouver Island in 20 years!

See below for the ID photos resulting from that sighting.

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Kappa was nicknamed  for the marking in the shape of a “K” on the lower left part of her tail.  Kappa is Greek for the letter K. See the marking?

BUT who was the whale with her on December 30th? That whale didn’t fluke. We only have a flank shot.

Sound familiar?

Here we go again –  another puzzle we will hopefully be able to solve.

Piece by piece by piece  . . .  contributing to the important and intriguing picture of understanding – and protecting – North Pacific Humpbacks.

fb-memes-001

Unknown Humpback traveling with Kappa (BCX0158) on December 30, 2016.


[Update: As a result of this blog, another puzzle piece has been delivered. “Bullet” was documented off Port Angeles, Washington on July 29th, 2016. S/he was photographed by Alethea Leddy of Island Adventures. Information was relayed by Tasli Shaw.]

About MERS

We are a non-profit organization dedication to promoting conservation and understanding of marine ecosystems through scientific research and environmental education.
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