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A Whale of a Selfie: How Tourist Photos Help Track Humpbacks

A network of citizen scientists is helping researchers identify humpback whales and track their migratory patterns.

National Geographic Global Exploration Fund grantee Martin Biuw was both a carpenter and a professional windsurfer before he decided to focus on biology. A young Fredrik Broms had thought about becoming a paleontologist or a rock star. Thankfully, in the end, they both chose to study the behavior of North Atlantic humpback whales.

Whales are difficult animals to study. Their population spreads across large expanses of ocean and they spend most of their time underwater. To provide data that can help develop effective conservation strategies for whales, Biuw and Broms needed to identify important habitat areas for the whales as well as any changes in their population over time.


Thinking of studying whales?

Biuw advises, “Don't be discouraged by others telling you to find an easier animal to work with. While hard work will be critical when studying whales, the rewards are truly awesome, in terms of experiences in the water and in the thrill of discovery!”

In 2010, they noticed that an unusually large number of whales were making extended winter visits to the north Norwegian fjords—right in their neighborhood. These yearly visits provide Biuw and Broms with a unique research opportunity. Broms explains, “Being able to witness such a dramatic event right outside my own doorstep and to be able to study this previously undersampled population in detail is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The rewards of discovering completely new things and to be able to turn that knowledge into actual conservation and management planning of humpback whales is what inspires me to put in all the work I’m doing.”

With so many whales close to the coast for an extended period of the year, public interest to see them is huge. Many local companies offer whale watching trips and the whales can even be viewed from land in several areas. Many people, both visitors and locals, naturally bring cameras with them to take photos of the whales as a memory of their trips.

“Their vacation photos can actually provide us with important information and help us to understand the ecology and movements of the whales,” says Broms. Photos of the tail-flukes of individual humpback whales are unique and can be used as fingerprints to track their movements. Through accumulation over time of new images of known individuals, or images of new individuals, it is possible to create sighting histories that tell a story of where and when the whales spend their time.

“We are also working with several local stakeholders to make sure our research is relevant and becomes useful for them. For instance, we have collaborations with VisitTromsø, the local organization coordinating and promoting local tourism. We also work closely with the local aquaculture operators, who assist us with data from their fish farm sites, and to whom we can provide information related to the effects of herring superabundance on oxygen depletion in the fjord systems,” Biuw explains.

Picture of team member ready to tag a humpback whale

A member of Martin Biuw’s research team waits to place a tag on the skin of a whale using a suction cup as part of the team’s effort to monitor north Norwegian humpback whales.

Photograph by Fredrik Broms/National Geographic

Funding from the National Geographic Society made the comparison of photos from Norway to other regions of the North Atlantic possible and resulted in much improved knowledge of the stock identity and migratory destinations of eastern North Atlantic humpbacks. Biuw and Broms were able to establish an interactive online web portal for direct submission and an open interactive analysis of ID photos sent to them from Norwegian waters.

Since the establishment of the North Norwegian Humpback Whale Catalogue, more than 820 individual humpbacks have been identified and the network of citizen scientists has grown to more than 160 people and organizations, including whale watching companies, fishermen, schools, researchers, kayakers, wildlife guides, tourists, weekend-hikers, and even some of the region’s most respected wildlife photographers.

You can help by submitting your fluke photos to their ID database ("Register a new sighting"); by doing so you will become a member of their network of citizen scientists and contribute directly to their research.

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