A fluke shot

You see, I was thinking of a story about a whale that caught my eye on the popular photo-sharing site, Flickr.  A Humpback whale was photographed off the coast of Brazil and two years later, in Madagascar, over 9,000 km away!  Humpbacks migrate great distances, but this one was a record breaker by a long shot.   Like many whales, humpbacks have distinctive tail patterns that can serve as fingerprints to identify individuals.  A group on Flickr consists solely of humpback tail flukes, and contains literally thousands of images submitted by people around the world.  By sifting through photos and looking for matches, anyone can help identify the migration routes of individual whales.  The story is here.  More recently, the incident found its way into a scientific study on breeding and migration patterns.
An avid photographer myself, I was able to spend some time this summer at nearby Work Channel, where dozens of Pacific Humpback whales gather to feed every year.  I was able to get a few shots (not that hard, really – imagine great, breathy explosions as whales surface continually all around you, and at night you can sometimes hear them breathing as they sleep near the surface).   Right now, many of these whales are making their way to warmer waters to calve.  Some go to Hawaii, some go to the coast off Mexico and Central America.  Humpbacks have high “site fidelity” – that is, they generally return to the same bodies of water every year to feed.  So in other words I’m likely to see the same individuals next summer!
(c) Mike Ambach/WWF-Canada © Mike Ambach/WWF-Canada
The species is listed as threatened by Canada’s Species at Risk Act Registry, but hopefully this will change soon, as the Humpback population off of Canada’s Pacific coast has been on the rise lately.  While the historic population of North Pacific Humpbacks feeding in this area is probably upwards of 5,000 current estimates place the number somewhere around a third of that, and rising.  This is a big improvement from around the turn of the century, when the overall population for the North Pacific was brought down by around 90 percent by commercial whaling.  On a recent boat trip across the harbour, the boat skipper – a local sightseeing guide – noted the increase as well, and speculated that the rise in humpback numbers could have implications for the abundance of prey (krill, herring, and zooplankton).  A single humpback can consume upwards of 150 tonnes of prey during its stay in BC waters.  Other threats to humpbacks include entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and underwater noise.
While the rise in Humpback numbers is good news, it reminds us that as a species, we have to manage our relationship to the ocean in a way that makes room for other species as well.  In conservation, a first step is to understand the life cycle of the species, which helps us understand when and where human activities can impact that species.
Matching flukes on Flickr is a simple way that anyone can contribute to this work.  What’s more, a variety of groups encourage reporting whale sightings.  For the West Coast, Fisheries and Oceans Canada hosts a catalogue of Humpback whale flukes. The Vancouver Aquarium’s Wild Whales site is a great place to learn more about a variety of marine mammal species and report sightings as well.  On the East Coast, One of the main groups who catalogue Humpback flukes is the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.
Are you reporting a sighting? Share it with our readers in the comments below too!
(c) Mike Ambach/WWF-Canada