A Whale of a Tale

Humpback whales migrate seasonally from their feeding grounds to their breeding grounds. (Photo credit: NOAA)

People typically use Flickr to upload photos to share images of people, places, and events with their friends and family. A recent upload led to an amazing scientific discovery–a photo of a humpback whales fluke, or tail, taken during a whale sightseeing cruise 10 years earlier placed a humpback whale 9,800 km (6,000 miles) from where it had first been sighted by research scientists–a figure 3,200 km (2,000 miles) beyond the average whales yearly migration.

Marian C. Neves, a whale researcher associated with Brazil’s Instituto Baleia Jubarte, first spotted this particular humpback whale on August 7, 1999 off the coast of Brazil. At that time, scientists took skin samples from the whale and genetic analyses of the samples indicated that the whale, identified as whale 1363, was a female. On September 21, 2001, Freddy Johansen, a tourist from Norway, photographed the fluke of the same whale during a whale sightseeing cruise off the east coast of Madagascar. He didn’t upload the images from his trip until 2009, when he decided to back up photographs from his trip and share them with friends.

Gale McCullough, a research associate with Allied Whale, the College of the Atlantic’s marine mammal research group, works as a liaison with Flickr and searches the site for humpback whale images. She was the first to discover Johansen’s whale fluke photograph and identify it as a possible match to whale 1363. Each humpback whale fluke has a distinct pattern of speckles, and can be used to identify individual humpback whales, in the same way that fingerprints can be used to identify individual humans.

The uniqueness of whale fluke patterns was first discovered by College of the Atlantic researchers in the 1970s and quickly revolutionized the way scientists tracked and identified individual whales. For over 30 years, scientists have placed the data they have gathered (including identifying traits such as tail shape and color and underside patterns) on individual humpback whales into the Antarctic Humpback Whale Catalogue. Scientists across the world use this catalogue to study humpback whales and gather data on population sizes, migration patterns, sexual maturity, and behavior patterns.

Each humpback whale can be identified by its fluke, or tail, which has a unique shape and color pattern. (Photo credit: J. Waite, OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); National Marine Mammal Lab/NOAA)

Each humpback whale can be identified by its fluke, or tail, which has a unique shape and color pattern. (Photo credit: J. Waite, OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); National Marine Mammal Lab/NOAA)

Most humpback whales migrate twice-yearly. They spend their summers in temperate or polar waters where they feed on krill and then spend their winters in tropical waters where they mate and the females give birth to their calves. The whales follow the same route, which averages around 6,400 km (4,000 miles), year after year. What makes the distance traveled by whale 1363 extra unusual was that she was identified at two different breeding grounds.

Peter T. Stevick, lead author on a paper published about the humpback whale in the journal Biology Letters, offers two possible explanations for its wayward journey. One possible explanation is that the whale was exploring new habitat. A second explanation is that the whale simply got lost. For example, it might have gotten off course while tracking prey or looking for new feeding sites.

According to the Biology Letters article, the shortest possible distance between Brazil and Madagascar (with a route taking the whale from the South Atlantic Ocean to Africa and around to Madagascar in the Indian Ocean) is 9,800 km, which is 4,000 km longer than any previously-recorded movement between breeding grounds for a humpback whale. This distance is twice the species typical seasonal migratory distance and is the longest documented movement by a mammal.

Movement of an individual between breeding areas separated by approximately 90 longitudinal degrees, a continent, an ocean basin and nearly 10,000 km illustrates the ability of humpback whales to range across large portions of the globe, the authors explain in the article. Whatever factors resulted in this rare event, such extensive movement by an individual of a species that is typically philopatric [that is, returns to its place of birth] shows the extent of behavioral flexibility in movement that may be demonstrated within a species.

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  1. I find it very hard to believe that a specific whale can be identified just by its pattern of speckles. Even the fact it was found on a photo sharing website amazes me. Scientists were even able to spot that the whale was off course. I think the reason for that, was the whale just got lost along the way.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this article because I enjoy whales. My mom and dad went to Seattle, Washington a few years ago and “adopted” a killer whale for me. This humpback whale must have incredible muscle strength to be able to travel such an extensive distance, especially since it is twice the species’ traveling distance in one year. It is also crazy how someone can identify a whale just by looking at the markings on its fins. Partially since Marian C. Neves hadn’t seen the whale in ten years.

  3. Nathan Hall says

    Whale of a Tale describes this pretty well. The same whale is spotted in two different breeding grounds in a decades difference. Maybe I didnt understand it that well, but is it really that odd? Ten years is a fairly long time. Dr. Stevicks two explanations seemed to make sense and it wasnt very complicated. A, it got lost. B, it was exploring new habitat. I was thinking the exp. A, myself, when I was began reading this.

  4. I thought this was a very interesting article. First of all, I didnt know that humpback whales lived that long. Second, it is really interesting that you can identify whales just by their tails.For a whale to travel that great a distance and return to its original breeding ground is incredible

  5. I believe this article to be pretty interesting and informative. I, on the otherhand, do think it is possible to recognize a whale just by its markings. As long as they were on record and the researcher didn’t merely take a glimpse and believe it was the whale she’d seen ten years prior, then it is entirely possible. While reading this, it actually dawned on me that animals follow a travel pattern and don’t just wander around at random; I found it to be quite neat.

  6. Wow! I find it pretty amazing that this scientist knew this whale (that he hadn’t seen in 10 years) from a picture! I never knew whales had speckles that serve as “fingerprints.” Secondly, I find it impressive that this humpback whale traveled twice the average migrating distance. So whether or not this whale was lost or not, it still set a new lookout for future scientists.

  7. I found it interesting that, for one thing, someone has the job of looking for whale pictures on Flickr. Second, that it actually came in handy. The fact that they can identify a whale from the marks on its fin reminds me of how we can be identified by our fingerprints. But the entire time I was reading this, I could not help but wonder why it matters the whale got off course if she still is safe. I guess it is a matter of curiosity for a scientist when a species of animal acts outside of its normal behavior.

  8. Julie Hubbell says

    We are supposed to respond to another student’s response, right? I will respond to Lacey’s. That is interesting about the killer whale and I agree about the muscle strength. It’s a super-whale.

  9. Lacey Kish says

    I agree with you Mary-Kate. It is crazy how people can look at the spots and be able to tell what specific whale it is.

  10. I don’t really find this that ‘strange’, maybe different or unusual, but when i think if strange i think of something weirder or crazier. i do agree with austin, though, it’s pretty crazy that whales can be identified just by their tales

  11. I am always amazed with Gods creation. I did not know that a whale can be identified by there fluke or tail. That reminds me of how no two humans have the same finger prints. It’s pretty cool how the whale was spoted in two differnt breeding grounds over such a long period of time. Lastly, i did not know that whales lived that long!

  12. Joey Alarid says

    Its crazy how you can identify a whale by looking at the shape and design on the tail. I didn’t know that whales followed a certain schedule throughout the year. It is surprising that they know the path that will take them to their breeding grounds.

  13. Sarah Langford says

    This article amazed me. I think its incredible for a whale to be identified by marks on its tail. I find it interesting that a whale just decides he doesn’t want to migrate to the same place. And goes 4,000 km to a new spot to breed.

  14. Agreeing with Mary-Kate, I believe it is very unusual to be able to identify a whale by it’s certain pattern of speckles. It was a very fun and informative article to read, I did not know whales traveled such long distances a year. It was also interesting about whale 1363, I still don’t know if I believe it was truly the same whale though. How do you know it was EXACTLY the same color and patterns unless you were examining it up close.

  15. They will eetualy need to move since they live that long

  16. Just as what tanner said I really don’t find this that strange. There is a number of reasons that even if this is the same whale that it could be seen in two different breeding grounds. One example would be that like the article said it got lost, or maybe it found a pod it liked beter than the previous one.

  17. I always just though whales looked pretty much the same; i didn’t know they had different marking like our fingerprints. I also thought they just swam all around the ocean wherever they wanted to go. I didn’t know they followed a pattern or that there were breeding grounds. I also think it’s amazing how they found this picture on flickr and identified where the whale was.

  18. Anonymous says

    Wow! This whale is pretty remarkable! With these highly intelligent creatures swimming this great distance it kinda makes one question the morality of places like Seaworld or zoos.

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