Researcher Wants Your Whale Photos

January 8, 2011

Think of them as passport photos for Bermuda’s greatest repeat visitors.

With the first humpback whales of the season already spotted off Bermuda, the Humpback Whale Research Project is asking for the public’s help compiling a photographic catalogue of these migratory animals’ unique fluke markings — allowing for individual identification.

With the island lying halfway between the humpback whales’ feeding grounds in the western North Atlantic and the wintering and breeding grounds in the Caribbean, Bermuda serves as an ideal observation platform to study the annual northward migration of these animals during the spring months of March and April.

“The key to our studies of humpbacks is individual photo-identification,” said conservationist Andrew Stevenson, who founded the Humpback Whale Research Project while he was making his acclaimed documentary film “Where the Whales Sing.”

“Each humpback has a unique pigmentation pattern on the underside of its tail flukes — some are mostly black, some are mostly white, and many have a mixture of black and white.”

Photos of these patterns, plus various nicks and scars on the tail, make a photograph of the flukes — taken from behind when the whale dives and lifts its tail – are the equivalent of a person’s passport photo.

By examining these photo IDs, Mr. Stevenson and other researchers can determine how many different whales are in Bermuda waters, how many return here each spring, and what other areas they visit.

The project was started in 2007 and Mr. Stevenson — who collects visual and acoustics data on the humpbacks as they migrate past Bermuda — has so far amassed 400 fluke photos of individual whales.

“The first photo [below] I took here in Bermuda in 2009 on 11th April. It’s not a particularly good photo but the curving line on the right fluke is fairly distinctive, good enough for a photo ID.”

bermuda humpback whale fluke

“A beautiful photo ID was given to me a month or so ago by Chris Burville. He had taken the photo on the 24th of April 2007. The second photo [below] was given to me by Kelly Winfield last week. This photo was taken on 5th May 2005. Judie Clee made this most recent match of Kelly’s photo yesterday while in the Cayman Islands where she is on holiday.”

bermuda humpback whale fluke 2

“These matches indicate the humpbacks seem to be coming back to Bermuda year after year. It also shows how important it is for other photographers to send us their fluke IDs.

“If Chris and Kelly hadn’t contributed their fluke IDs we would have had no idea the same whale was here in 2005, 2007 as well as 2009.”

“It all helps me to build up the data base of research and fluke IDs so that we can better determine the pelagic migratory behaviour of the North Atlantic humpbacks. We have one humpback we call Harry Potter – because of a ‘lightning flash’ mark on its fluke – who has been here four seasons. I took two of the fluke IDs but the other two fluke IDs in different years were submitted by others, thanks to the publicity generated by the media.”

If you spot whales or have any photos that you can send to assist in the research, please phone 777-7688 [77-SPOUT] or email

Read More About

Category: All, Environment