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A whale of a tale: Citizen science aids whale identification

Originally published on Planet Forward by Ryan Bieber

I awoke at 6 am to the captain’s voice on the loudspeaker. In my disoriented haze, I made out just a few words, “Humpback whales … outside.”


This was certainly an unusual wake up call, but I also found myself in an unusual place, sailing through the heart of Southeast Alaska on a Lindblad and National Geographic adventure cruise. Sleep would have to wait - I was here for adventure after all and whale sightings are a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Furiously matting my bedhead, I donned a rain jacket and hurried up to the deck.


I was struck by a sharp wind and a spray of mist as I opened the door to the outside world. I eagerly scanned the horizon and, after a brief moment, was greeted by half a dozen whale tails, seemingly waving at me as they dove back beneath the water’s surface. They didn’t stay under for long, however. It was feeding time and the whales were evidently hungry.


Up and down they went, smooth arched backs diving beneath the surface, each flourishing tail a sight to behold. Shiny black blubber, flowing like a heart shaped fan, glistened in the morning light and sent droplets of water rippling through the air.


I grabbed my camera, hoping to catch a whale fully breaching, but it was those tails that kept appearing in my viewfinder. At first, I found myself frustrated at my inability to photograph anything more than that last bit of whale disappearing into the water. But I soon learned that there was more to these tails (and thus this tale) than it seemed.


More than a fluke


On the deck, Shannon Malone, the ship’s naturalist and undersea specialist explained that photographing these whales, specifically their tails, could actually be a huge benefit to science. It turns out researchers and scientists can learn a lot just by looking at this small section of the animal.


“What we're trying to do is learn about the whales as much as we can without altering their behavior,” Malone said. The fluke [the two lobes of a whale’s tail] is really like seeing their face. So, you see the same individuals, then you start to know other parts of them.”


Yes, believe it or not, a whale’s tale is like a fingerprint, each wholly unique to the individual. The shapes of tails vary widely among species and scarring from broken off barnacles and/or predation further distinguishes one whale from the next. By identifying specific whales, scientists can then track them and study migration and behavioral patterns as well as their life histories.

“The way that they [scientists] figured out that those markings mattered, was actually just random happenstance,” Malone said. She explained that in the 1960’s researchers from Hawaii met with a high school science teacher from Juneau and compared whale photos. Previously, the researchers in Hawaii were unsure of where the humpbacks were going to migrate and thought this might be the missing link. “They sat down and just started playing the game of like, mix and match with their pictures and realized ‘wow, these are the same.’ That's how it all began,” Malone said.


Happy Tales make Happy Whales


These days it’s no longer necessary to identify whales by hand. Back in 2015, Ted Cheeseman, a conservation biologist, founded HappyWhale, a website that utilizes a custom-made algorithm to analyze and identify humpback whales through photo comparisons.


Just as detectives find fingerprint matches by analyzing ridges of a finger pad and comparing them to an existing database, HappyWhale’s algorithm matches newly uploaded fluke photos with previously uploaded photos to find matches. From there, scientists, researchers, and the public can find information on the whales they have identified such as their gender and where they have previously been spotted.


“The importance of it is only as important as it is important to understand the fate of our oceans, which as we are seeing today, the health of human societies is quite dependent upon,” Cheeseman explained. “This is basically another lens we have … that has provided effectively a tool to be able to see in near real time how marine conditions are faring.”


A unique aspect of HappyWhale is that anyone can upload photos, and anyone can access the information on these whales found on the site. The result is a diverse community of citizen scientists, researchers and environmentalists working in tandem to achieve a variety of goals.


For the casual uploader, HappyWhale provides the opportunity to track “your” whale and even name it, if you are the first to discover it. For the researchers, it provides unprecedented access to a vast trove of information on a specific species. With an ever-growing database of over 500,000 submitted photos and over 200,000 identified encounters, the knowledge of these majestic creatures will continue to expand as well.


“I see the whole thing as being kind of equal parts, a research tool, a public education tool, and a public experience,” Cheeseman said.

A large portion of uploads actually come from tourism. I witnessed this first-hand as some of the naturalists aboard the ship spent hours logging dozens of fluke photos they had taken in the morning.


When I later sat down with Malone she explained that having naturalists like herself as well as tourists contribute to HappyWhale’s database saves research groups a lot of time, effort and money. In addition to whale identification, the website also offers similar algorithms to analyze and track everything from penguins to sea otters.


“If we just relied on the researchers to gather the information about whales, we would have maybe a handful of people working, but with citizen science, you're now getting to use the resources of thousands of people,” Malone said. “Like with any science, the more data points we have, the more accurately we can speak about the population as a whole. It's not only adding to the science, but it's adding to the group of stewards for the environment by informing people about this.”


Cheeseman agreed, emphasizing how HappyWhale can serve as a tool for people from all walks of life.


“What's most powerful is this becomes a tool for the guides, folks like Shannon, to have more resources so that they can do their job with science support,” he said. “At the end of the day, what this is trying to do is help people understand. My goal is not at all to get every one of those folks to submit, it's really more to have a few people turn on and stay turned on.”

A map aboard ship detailing where we saw whales.

By the end of the trip, I was hooked by HappyWhale’s mission. Scanning their website, it’s easy to see the appeal and how powerful a tool it can be. A quick search allowed me to find the whales the naturalist had identified on our expedition. I then clicked on another upload from Alaska and found other humpback whales, decades old, spotted as far as Hawaii.


Unfortunately, I never got any close-up shots on my expedition to submit to HappyWhale. Still, the memory of my adventure lives on thanks to the uploads of so many others. Even having now left Alaska, I am confident this tale will continue.


A photo from HappyWhale’s website, depicting one of the whales we saw and uploaded on the expedition.

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