Friday, March 22, 2013

One Fluke at a Time

When whale researchers take photos of humpback whale flukes, right whale callosity patterns or fin whale chevrons, they're not doing it just to have a beautiful image to hang on the wall.  They're looking for specific patterns that identify individual whales, in order to expand the knowledge base for these species. Humpback fluke patterns are unique to the individual whale, and are often compared to fingerprints since they remain the same throughout the whale's adult life, apart from the addition of new scars from barnacles, orca attacks or other such incidents.  Right whale callosities are the rough patches that appear on the right whale's face in the same areas where humans have facial hair: eyebrows, mustache, etc., and they, too, remain relatively stable, aiding in identification. The variations in the chevrons on fin whales' right sides are also usable for identification although that's a daunting task.

Identification by humpback fluke patterns, though, is the area that's seen the greatest concentration. Fluke patterns like the one above range from almost completely black through patchy variations to almost completely white; curiously, scars on white flukes appear black, while scars on black flukes appear white. These stark, graphic patterns can be compared to make positive ID of an individual whale regardless of its location. There are a number of organizations that pursue this identification work, and each of them is fortunate to count on dedicated and selfless volunteers whose passionate commitment to the whales drives them onward. A great example of such dedication is Gale McCullough of Maine (aka Flukematcher), a tireless advocate for the environment and marine mammals, who operates fluke-matching sites on Flickr and Facebook for comparing the images submitted by researchers, volunteers, whale enthusiasts and tourists up and down the east coast of North America. By scanning through hundreds of images by hand, Gale and other experts match flukes to find links between Newfoundland, the Gulf of Maine, Cape Cod, Bermuda, and the Dominican Republic as well as other locales.

Don't get me wrong, Gale's not the only such cataloguer who's working long hours to advance our knowledge, she's simply a dedicated and passionate person who devotes much time and energy to this very worthwhile study. She's a remarkable woman whose work contributes greatly to increasing what we know about humpback whales and their feeding, breeding and migration patterns, and she deserves our thanks. Happy birthday, Gale.


  1. ((((Jean))) tears! What a present!

    1. Glad you liked it, Gale -- you're one of the true heroes!

  2. Great entry and wonderful tribute to a tireless worker.