Maine's Allied Whale adds 8,000th humpback whale to ground-breaking research database

This photo, of the 8,000th whale to be listed the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog database at Allied Whale, was taken in November 2013 off Tromso, Norway, by Audun Rikardsen of Arctic Coast Photography. Allied Whale, the marine mammal research arm of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, created the research database in 1977 and continues to update it.

College of the Atlantic’s unique, historic effort identifies, tracks whales, adds to knowledge base

By Ramona du Houx

A milestone was reached be the staff at Allied Whale, the marine mammal research organization at College of the Atlantic, when they entered the image of the 8,000th humpback whale into its photographic database this fall.

“It would have seemed inconceivable to that first group who got the catalog started,” said Peter Stevick, a 1981 COA graduate and senior scientist at Allied Whale, during a gathering to mark the mammals historic entry into the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog (NAHWC).

Back in 1977, students and faculty at College of the Atlantic published a slim volume containing the black-and-white photographs of 120 humpback whales collected by researchers from around the north Atlantic.

The revolutionary ground-breaking program uses photographs of natural markings and patterns to identify and track marine mammals. The effort has led to incalculable advances in the study of the behavior and migratory patterns of North Atlantic humpback whales, as it allows researchers to identify and track them in their natural habitat using the unique tail patterns on each of the whales’ flukes. Turns out the whales’ tales are like our fingerprints.

“While this has grown to become one of the most commonly used techniques for studying whales today,” said Stevick, “it was a revolution in whale research at the time.”

The newest addition to the catalog expanded knowledge of the humpback whale and shows why the Allied Whale database is invaluable.

The 8,000th whale is quite distinctive, Stevick said, with a strong white marking running diagonally across the center of the tail. “It has been photographed twice, both times a long way from Maine.”

It was first photographed in April 2010 swimming in the warm waters off the small island of Petite Terre, near the recently established Agoa wildlife sanctuary located off Guadeloupe in the French West Indies.

The whale was next seen in November 2013. “Rather than being in the tropics, it was photographed off Musvær Island, Norway, 5,000 miles away in the Arctic. While it was known that humpbacks feed on the schools of herring off that coast late in the year, few whales were known to migrate there from these waters, until the past few years.

“Being able to trace the migrations of whales was one of the first important contributions that the NAHWC made to whale research,” said Stevick. “By connecting these two little-studied areas, this 8,000th animal continues to enlarge and expand our understanding of whale movements.”

Photo of a humpback whale taken from a sightseeing boat off Bar Harbor. The whale most likely is in the Alllied Whale database. Photo by Ramona du Houx

One of the largest catalogs of its kind in the world—

Like other large whales, the humpback was a target for the whaling industry. Their blubber was used for candles, cosmetics and lubircants. Their meat is still prized in Japan. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, its population fell by an estimated 90 percent before a moratorium was introduced in 1966. Being placed on the endangered species list has helped their numbers partially recover. However, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and noise pollution continue to impact the estimated 80,000 humpbacks worldwide.

The NAHWC collection is unique in scope, with about 32,500 records of whales that have been photographed from all areas of the North Atlantic Ocean, some with sightings histories spanning almost 40 years.

 “It is a massively collaborative venture,” said Stevick. “About 700 individuals and groups have contributed their photos and data to the effort. While changing technologies have transformed much of how the project is done, the Herculean task of comparing whales to the collection takes countless hours of patient and careful comparison.”

Observers said the catalog has become the premier tool for understanding humpback whale movements, abundance and ecology across the North Atlantic, and has played a key role in informing conservation and management efforts and documenting and understanding recovery.

“Researchers use the catalog data to monitor migration patterns, determine age at sexual maturity, longevity, regional movements, residency, and so on.” Such analyses “are needed to monitor long-lived marine mammal populations,” said Frederick Wenzel at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass. , a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the lead federal agency for management of marine protected species.

More marine mammal conservation efforts in the North Atlantic—

Allied Whale has been stepping up marine mammal conservation efforts in the North Atlantic, using the database to help identify rescued humpback whales.

Last month, the catalog was used to identify a humpback whale entangled in fishing gear off Mount Desert Island. As the whale was freed photographs were taken that showed her markings which matched those of a humpback known as Spinnaker, a frequently sighted, 40-foot female believed to be approximately 11 years old.

On October 25th, for the first time since 1978, a whale, “na1330 was seen and identified with the help of the catalogue. Many of the whales that were identified in the 1970s continue to be seen,” said Stevick. While others that may have perished will never be seen again, so the catalog should not be mistaken as a count of a current humpback whale population.

When Spinnaker is hopefully photographed again her tail portraits could help understand if the fishing gear entanglement could have affected her long-term health. All that data will be added to the whale catalog.