The Naming of Things: Humpback Whale Identification (in BC)

Previously on The Naming of Things we’ve discussed the naming of Humpback Whales but what we haven’t explored is how individual humpback whales are “named” by researchers. One of the reasons for this is because humpback whales are identified differently in different countries (sometimes they’re even identified differently by different research projects in the SAME country) despite the fact that the same whale will migrate through all of these different countries. Understandably, if humpbacks ever cared to look themselves up in research-world Facebook they would have a bit of an identity crisis…

Photo by Tasli Shaw

Read the story of “Gnarly: One Whale, Two Numbers”

All that said, the ways in which any species are studied and identified at the individual level are super interesting to us so since we are based in British Columbia (BC), Canada today we’re going to dive into the method that Canadian researchers have been using to catalogue humpbacks for the past couple of decades.

First, let’s be clear on how you differentiate one humpback whale from another: their fluke print. Humpbacks will often if their entire fluke out of the water, showing off the uniquely patterned ventral side OH-so-perfectly, as they descend on deep dives. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to get a clear picture of their fluke while this is happening and you can use this picture to help you determine which individual humpback you have been looking at since the tail flukes of each humpback whale are as unique as human fingerprints.

Photo by Janine Harles

Each whale, by virtue of their tail fluke, is assigned an alphanumeric identifier such as BCY0324 or KEX0024.  There are three parts to this alphanumeric identifier. The four-digit number at the end usually represents the chronological addition of that animal to any particular catalogue so an animal that was first documented ten years ago would have a “smaller” number than an animal documented this summer by the same research project. Next, each whale is assigned either a X, Y, or Z immediately proceeding their four-digit number. The X, Y, or Z correspond to the amount of white on the flukes where X-whales contain approximately 0-20% white, Y-whales have approximately 20-80% white and Z-whales have approximately 80-100% white. The other letters found at the beginning of the alphanumeric identifier represent the research group/project that first identified the whale such as BC for whales identified by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, UKNC for “Unknown North Coast” whales identified by Ocean Wise researchers, KE for whales identified by Keta Coastal Conservation, and MM for whales identified by Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea.

There are numerous different catalogues for humpback whales in BC, often based on a combination of geographic location as well as research project, but the researchers all do their best to share their catalogues with each other and use the alphanumeric identifier that was first assigned to a particular whale. Happywhale is a great source for not only identifying animals but checking to see which other numbers they may already have along their migration route!

Many of the frequently spotted humpbacks along our coast are also given “nicknames,” like “Big Mama”, and these can refer to either the patterns on their fluke, an interesting feature of the location where they were first spotted, or a fascinating facet of their behaviour.

Photo by Gary Sutton

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