A Whale’s Fluke of Identity

Editor’s Note: The following post on the “Whale Savers” from the Christian Science Monitor, is posted in part. It is a lengthy article, and we encourage readers to link to the original report (The Whale Savers)

The photos posted here showcase humpback whale photos from Monterey Bay last August where researches log the same data via fluke identification. You will notice that each fluke is distinctively different.

Humpback Whale Fluke. C. Coimbra photo

Humpback Whale Fluke. C. Coimbra photo

BAY OF FUNDY, NOVA SCOTIA AND NEW BRUNSWICK — Whale No. 4091 rolled to the surface, emptied its lungs in twin steeples of steam, and raised its tail to the sky to dive again in search of food. It was quick, but Amy Knowlton fired off 21 photos from her perch on the bow of the Nereid.

Later, poring over the pictures, Ms. Knowlton meticulously compared the patterns of white calloused skin, sea lice, and small propeller cuts and identified the whale as a young acquaintance. 4091, a whale born to its mother, Echo, in 2010 off the coast of Georgia and seen in this northern bay nearly every year since, was still alive.

Knowlton could have done it with any of the 509 North Atlantic right whales still thought to exist. She and other researchers know each animal in the endangered population through a voluminous catalog of photos, histories, and biological samples.

The effort to understand – and save – the struggling northern right whale has produced one of the most exhaustive profiles of a marine species ever compiled. It includes a name-by-name history of each whale, which some compare to Jane Goodall’s intimate description of Tanzanian chimpanzees. But the subject of this research lives hidden underwater.

And – though the researchers are reluctant to say it – their efforts are slowly working. Decimated by whalers, the northern right whale was thought to be extinct – or nearly so – in the 1950s. In 2007, their numbers were estimated at 350. Today, partly because of ship traffic changes pushed by the researchers, there are more than 500.

Not enough, says Scott Kraus, head of the most prominent clutch of researchers based at the New England Aquarium in Boston. “One good disease could wipe them out,” he says. And, for reasons the researchers still guess at, the whales are reproducing at only about 2 percent per year – one-third the rate of the rebounding southern right whale and other protected species.

This majestic animal, once grimly hunted by man, is now an ironic gauge of both humanity’s conscience and of the health of the oceans. While volunteers work to save it on moral grounds, scientists see the difficulties in restoring the right whale as a warning of the decline of the world’s seas and a signal of the possible fate of other species.

The story of the struggling North Atlantic right whale also is a portrait of the decades-long perseverance of scientists and volunteers determined to learn more about the elusive giants. Their unparalleled accumulation of data on the species has led to knowledge – though still with gaps – that provides hope for the survival of the graceful mammal.

Humpback Whale fluke. C. Coimbra photo

Humpback Whale fluke. C. Coimbra photo


Humpback Whale fluke. C. Coimbra photo

Humpback Whale fluke. C. Coimbra photo

Humpback Whale fluke. C. Coimbra photo

Categories: Discovery, Oceanography, Whales

Tags: , , , ,

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