BAR HARBOR — Staff at Allied Whale, the marine mammal research organization at College of the Atlantic, entered the image of the 8,000th humpback whale into its photographic database recently.
The milestone is the latest in a groundbreaking program that 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 the whales’ flukes.
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, according to Peter Stevick, PhD., senior scientist at Allied Whale.
In creating this North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog (NAHWC), they showed how the natural markings on humpback whales could provide information about the lives and movements of whales in their natural environment.
“While this has grown to become one of the most commonly used techniques for studying whales today,” Stevick said, “it was a revolution in whale research at the time.”
When students, faculty and staff gathered to mark the entry of the 8,000th individual whale into the NAHWC database, “it would have seemed inconceivable to that first group who got the catalog started,” Stevick said.
Best estimates available in 1977 suggested there likely were fewer than 2,000 humpbacks in the North Atlantic at the time. Work conducted since using NAHWC has shown that there are many times more than that, and the catalog continues to grow.
The 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 sighting histories spanning almost 40 years. It’s one of the largest catalogs of its kind in the world.
“It is a massively collaborative venture,” Stevick said. “About 700 individuals and groups have contributed their photos and data to the effort. In addition, hundreds of staff, students and volunteers have kept the effort going over the years.
“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 it has played a key role in informing conservation and management efforts and in documenting and understanding recovery.
Frederick Wenzel of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center – a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that responds to strandings and other marine mammal emergencies from Woods Hole, Mass. – said researchers use the catalog “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,” Wenzel said.
The newest addition to the catalog provides an object lesson in the value of the Allied Whale database.
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,” he said.
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 schools of herring off that coast late in the year, until the past few years, few whales were known to migrate there from these waters.
“Being able to trace the migrations of whales was one of the first important contributions that the NAHWC made to whale research,” Stevick said. “By connecting these two little-studied areas, this 8,000th animal continues to enlarge and expand our understanding of whale movements.”
Meanwhile, Allied Whale has been stepping up marine mammal conservation efforts in the North Atlantic recently, using the database to help identify a rescued humpback whale ensnared in fishing gear off Bar Harbor in September while also responding to seal strandings, such as one in Castine in October.