Gnarly: One Whale – Two Numbers


Humpback whales are an iconic species and are easily recognizable by almost anyone who has experience on the water. They are some of our storytellers’ favourite cetaceans to see, and videos of their exploits frequently go viral even for non whale enthusiasts. And because of the predictable nature of their diving patterns, individuals should almost always be able to be identified. This makes it particularly inconceivable that a species as well studied as the North Pacific Humpback Whale, with such a thoroughly documented migration pattern, is so vastly misrepresented when it comes to individuals in the population.  There are a minimum of four (likely more) different fluke ID guides for the exact same population of Humpback Whales found from Hawaii to Alaska.  We know for a fact that individuals who spend their breeding seasons near Maui can be found in the Bering Sea for their feeding seasons, so why do almost all of the various groups that study these whales use different identification systems?

Photo courtesy of Happy Whale

We of course understand that funding for joint international research initiatives is extremely limited and a number of these initiatives started studying humpbacks individually.  There has also been great progress in the sharing of research amongst these scientific circles in the last few decades. (The last major joint assessment of these animals was in 2004-2006 under the SPLASH– Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks- project).

This conundrum is what actually lead to one of the first idea behind Whale Tales, and we are not alone!

Thanks to a recent sighting south of Victoria, our friends at Happy Whale were able to identify the “famous” Gnarly from the BC coast as CRC14003! Gnarly is also known as BCZ0131 in the Photographic Catalogue of Humpback Whales in BC.  The fluke shots from that day were a match to when Gnarly was seen and given his Cascadia Research Collective ID back in 1996.  Gnarly was then seen by Whale Tales Storytellers a few days later!  (read all whale tales about Gnarly here)

Photo courtesy of Happy Whale

The photo used in the DFO catalogue as well as the one from Cascadia shows that his tail has not always been like this!

Photo taken from DFO Photographic Humpback Catalogue of BC

In addition to Gnarly’s fluke print, another striking characteristic of Gnarly is its accordion like fluke. While it is unknown exactly how Gnarly’s fluke became what it is today, it is likely due to an entanglement. Entanglement is a terrible but 100% preventable issue! Every piece of debris Gnarly encounters in the oceans has ended up in its home because of our negligence. We can all do our part to ensure that our waste is disposed of safely and, even better, we can strive every day to just use less! Read more about how you can help reduce the risk of entanglement as well as what to do if you seen an animal in distress here.

By matching Gnarly’s fluke with sightings from California (as well as from the past) researchers at Happy Whale are not only able to gain information about Gnarly and its movements but also gain a more general idea of the humpback populations in the North Pacific.

We hope thatextended collaboration between our own organization, organizations like Happy Whale, researchers throughout the North Pacific Humpbacks’ range, and YOU will continue to further help all of us gain a better understanding of these magnificent creatures!

To submit fluke photos to Happy Whale click here

To help Happy Whale locate the identifying features on already submitted fluke photos click here

To read more Humpback Whale Tales (and submit your own!)  click here

Photo by Tasli Shaw

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