Whale Matching Games

By Chloé Warren, 2nd season MERS Summer Team 

For those of you coming here via a matching challenge we posted on our social media, please scroll to the end  of the blog for the answers to the #ChloesWhaleMatchingGame challenges. Each week the answers to the present week’s game will be added to the list. But first, read on if you’d like to learn a little bit more about what we do as Data Analysts for MERS and how we process the data sent to us.

This was the first weekly challenge. Try matching the Humpback Whales on the left with one of the whales on the right. 


Background on the work of matching whales:

As a summer team member for MERS, one of my main duties is to review both the Humpback pictures collected by our team and those sent to us by our wonderful data contributors, be it pleasure boaters or whale watching operators.

The first thing we do when we receive a picture of a Humpback Whale is to try to identify the individual (and believe me, this very quickly become a reflex; I can’t look at a video or photo of a whale anymore without wondering if I may be able to identify the individual). Being able to determine the ID of the individual whale and relay who the whale is to our data contributors adds to connection and care for the whales.

It is also the foundation of all our work from population studies to feeding strategies and entanglement rates,. When we recognize them as individuals, we can better follow their movements, area use, behaviours, associations, feeding strategies, diet, family ties, survival rates, injuries, and so much more.

The trailing edge of the whale’s tail (the edge at the extremity of the tail), with all its bumps and ridges, is arguably the most consistent feature of a Humpback.Unless the whale suffers some sort of injury, in which case a new nick can appear or a piece of the tail can go missing, the trailing edge will barely change, even when the whale grows bigger. By using the trailing edge, one can also identify a Humpback from a “reverse fluke shot” which is a photo of the topside of the tail. However, it can be quite tedious to scrutinize the trailing edge of a fluke.

It is much easier to identify a Humpback Whale through colouration and markings on the underside of their fluke / tail. The pigmentation there can vary greatly between whales, and tends to change relatively slowly over time (although it still does change, especially in younger whales, and scars can obviously appear and change with time).

However, Humpbacks do not always lift their tails and/or contributed photos show just the side of the whale. Thus, it is very useful to catalogue the dorsal fins of Humpbacks as well (the fins on their backs).


Again, the overall shape of a dorsal tends not to change, but severe transformations of individual dorsal fins do regularly happen as the result of injuries e.g. from vessel strikes or male competitive behaviour. Scars will appear, change, and disappear quite frequently there too, so it can be quite tricky to identify whales that way. Plus, much like human noses, there’s not that much variation in  the shape of dorsal fins, and several individuals will have dorsal fins that look extremely similar. At MERS, we’ve all spent way too many hours looking at dorsal fins, looking for any type of clue that may indicate which whale we are looking at.

Identifying the whale is only the first step in the data processing process though. After we’ve determined the ID, in the photo’s metadata, we’ll add the ID of the whale, the photographer, the date, the time and the location. We’ll also rate the quality of the picture.

But wait, there’s more!  Not only does all the information for EVERY sighting get entered into our database, there is further processing needed for pictures that suggest entanglement scaring, that may allow for determination of gender, or pictures of previously undocumented whales.

Needless to say, this can be a very time-consuming job: every single picture needs to be analyzed and processed. We quite often run into whale mysteries, where we can’t quite figure out which dorsal goes with which fluke or that the quality of the photo makes ID more difficult.

It sometimes takes 5 pairs of eyes, and a couple more encounters with the whale for us to figure out who they are. Last summer, about a month went by before the puzzle pieces came together and I was able to ID a whale. And check out this blog post to see how much work was put into identifying the Humpback Whale seen in Vancouver this past May (I was not involved in that mystery). It’s the story of Halfpipe at this link. 

While it can be frustrating, the satisfaction of finally solving a whale puzzle always leaves me wanting more. How did you make out with the challenges?

For more information on how the whales receive catalogue numbers and nicknames, please see our Education Coordinator’s blog “Beethoven the Humpback Whale! What’s in a name?” at this link.

To obtain the MERS Humpback Catalogue for Northern Vancouver Island, please click here. 

Here are the answers to Chloe’s Whale Matching Games:

Week 1 – July  23, 2020:


Answers for Week 1:

A is Guardian (BCYuk2011#4),

B  is Argonaut (BCY0729)

C  is Bumpy (BCYuk2016#11)

D is Inukshuk (BCZ0339, Inukshuk)

Week 2 – July  30, 2020:



Answers Week 2:


A is Sponge Bob (BCYuk2019#8)

B  is Whiskers (BCZ0200)

C  is Poseidon (BCZ0200 calf 2019)

D is Terry (BCX1100)

E is Hammerhead (BCYuk2019#4)


A is Sponge Bob (BCYuk2019#8)

B  is Whiskers (BCZ0200)

C  is Poseidon (BCZ0200 calf 2019)

Week 3 – August 6th, 2020

This week we’re exploring the art of nicknaming Humpback Whales. You might have noticed that we often reference Humpbacks by 2 names: their alphanumeric ID & their nickname.

The alphanumerical ID is relatively straightforward:

  • BC = British-Columbia
  • X, Y or Z = % of white on the underside of the tail (fluke)
    X = mostly black
    Y = intermediate amount of white
    Z = mostly white
  • A 4 digit number = the order in which the whales are documented.

    Thus, BCZ0200 is the 200th Humpback documented off BC whose tail is mostly white.

Until the whales are assigned a provincial ID, there is a temporary designation. We use a system whereby BCYuk2019#8 is the 8th whale with an intermediate amount of white on their fluke, documented in 2019. Not a new paragraph. Calves get the ID of their mother, followed by “calf” and the year they were born, so “BCZ0200 calf 2019” is BCZ0200’s 2019 calf.

We assign nicknames for 2 reasons: to provide greater potential for public engagement & they’re easier to remember! They are based on distinguishing features & allow for more efficient IDing.

When a new whale is documented, MERS often invites the data contributor to suggest nicknames. Sometimes, school groups or participants in MERS’ courses are invited to do so for whales who have yet to be nicknamed. MERS ultimately selects the name, to avoid confusion with other names & because we’re the ones who most often use them for identification!

This all requires a keen eye, lots of creativity & a good dose of imagination. Can you do it? 8 of the whales here were named for a distinguishing feature on their flukes & 6 for something on their flanks. Can you guess which nickname corresponds to which whale? 

Answers for the Week 3 Fluke Challenge:
A is #5 = Double Drop
See how the left trailing edge had two large jags?

B is #6= Loophole
See the hole on the right?

C is #3 = K-One
See the K1 marking on the right?

D is #4.= ‘Makwala
See the moon-like marking on the left?

E is # 7 = Notcho
See the notch in the trailing edge top left?

F is #2 = Yogi
See the large white shape on the left? We think it looks like a bear’s head, facing left. Yes, it is like an ink blotch test!

G is #8 = Stripe
See the stripe on the left?

H is 1 = Lefty
See that the left part of the fluke is missing?

Answers for the Week 3 dorsal fin challenge:

A is #5 = Freckles
See all the white dots?

B is #4 = Claw
See how the shape of her dorsal fin is like a claw?

C is # 1 = Bumpy
See the bump in front of the dorsal fin?

D is #3 = Nick
See the nick in her dorsal fin?

E is #2 = Slash
See the lack of dorsal, and the propeller scars over her back?

F  is #6 = Hook
See how the shape of her dorsal fin is really hooked?

Week 4 – August 13th, 2020

This week, we will focus on an incredibly useful skill in any Humpback Whale data analyst’s toolkit: being able to match the trailing edge of a whale’s tail (the edge at the extremity of the tail). Just this week, I’ve relied on this skill to identify about a dozen whales, having nothing else to go off off it is challenging to scrutinize the bumps and ridges that define the trailing edge of a fluke. It’s usually much easier to recognize a whale when you can see the the markings and pigmentation on the underside of the tail (the fluke). But sometimes, one has to rely on the trailing edge to identify a whale. This can be due to the photo being of the front of the tail (reverse fluke) or of only a segment of the underside of the tail, poor lighting, or simply because it’s an all-black tail. The trailing edge of a fluke is a very consistent feature of a Humpback, so even when fluke markings seem to match, it is always good to check the trailing edge to confirm a match. So this week, I’m setting you up for a challenging but amusing exercise: on the left you have a picture of the topside of the tail of 4 different whales (reverse flukes), and on the right you have the flukes of those whales as they would appear in our catalogue. Can you match each reverse fluke to a whale? Good luck! 

Answers for Week 4 Reverse Fluke Challenge

A is Cutter
B is Tempest
C is Bumpy
D is Argonaut

Week 5 – August 20th, 2020

This week, for our second to last episode of #chloeswhalematchingame, we are honoring another part of MERS’s research: Minke Whales!

Minke Whales are the second smallest of the baleen whales. Their small size and limited surface activity make for a very cryptic species.

MERS co-founder Jared initiated Minke Whale research in the area over a decade ago. As with Humpbacks, the basis for understanding this species is to be able to identify them as individuals. The resulting very interesting discoveries from his efforts to recognize them include that it is now known that 6 individuals return to our core study area on NE Vancouver Island year upon year and, most likely, they are all females. See Jared and colleagues’ research on Minke Whales here www.mersociety.org/publications.

If you enjoy dorsal fin matching then you are in for a treat: Minke Whales do not lift their tails whereby they must be identified by their flanks. Make sure you put on your glasses because you’ll be looking for slight differences in scars, shapes, and dents to make the matches here!

The pictures on the left are those to ID, and the ones on the right are the Minkes as they are catalogued by Jared Towers in MERS’s “Minke Whales of the straits off northeastern Vancouver Island” (catalogue available via the link above). Good luck!

Answers Week 5 Minke Whale Challenge:

Week 6 – August 27th, 2020

Here you have the flanks & flukes of 3 Humpback Whales (whale A, B and C), all of which were featured in a matching game at some point this summer. Can you identify them? You may know them already, or you can put the pieces together by searching our previous games above. Also, remember nicknames can help. For the biggest challenge: look through the MERS catalogue to try & find them! If you don’t have it already, you can purchase at our #oceanstore. I hope this series of games may have enhanced how you observe the world around you; maybe thinking about animals more as individuals which opens the door further to learning about the life surrounding us!



Answers Week 6:

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