With a little help from technology, the 15 million people who go whale watching in over 100 countries each year may soon become active participants in whale research.
That's the prediction of Greg Kaufman, founder and president of Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF), a Maui-based nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting whales and our oceans through science and advocacy. PWF has studied humpback whales in Hawai'i and throughout the Pacific for more than three decades and has recently invested in creating new technology that will increase the speed at which whale data is collected.
"A huge percentage of the world's population now carries smart phones," noted Kaufman, citing estimates that 1.2 billion people will be carrying these phones by the end of 2012. "When smartphone users embark on whale watch cruises, they are in a unique position to gather photos and information about whales."
When smartphone users embark on whale watch cruises, they are in a unique position to gather photos and information about whales. The Pacific Whale Foundation aims to tap into this data-gathering capability through Web-based technology that will effectively turn citizen whale watchers into whale researchers. A photograph of the whale’s fluke will capture the unique black and white coloration patterns, as well as scars and outline of the fluke, that allow researchers to distinguish this whale from all others. In essence, the fluke photo serves as the whale’s fingerprint.
Photo: Pacific Whale Foundation
"It's our goal at Pacific Whale Foundation to tap into this amazing data-gathering capability through Web-based technology that will effectively turn citizen whale watchers into whale researchers," said Kaufman.
Photos are an important component of whale research. As a whale dives, it may lift its tail flukes into the air, revealing the underside or ventral area. A photograph of the whale's flukes will capture the unique black and white coloration patterns, as well as scars and outline of the flukes, that allow researchers to distinguish this whale from all others. In essence, the fluke photo serves as the whale's fingerprint.
For more than 35 years, researchers around the world have compiled databases of whale fluke identification photos. For example, PWF has a database of more than 5,000 individually identified animals, which it shares with other researchers who are part of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership.
As new fluke identification photos are taken each year, researchers spend countless hours in the lab, endeavoring to match the new photos with those of previously identified animals in the database. When a match is found, it lets the researchers assemble a more complete picture of the animal's life. Some whales that have been seen repeatedly over many years have a very complete life story that includes information on their migratory patterns, the calves they've given birth to and their behaviors.
Kaufman points out that one of the biggest whale research breakthroughs in recent years was the result of a photo of a humpback whale fluke taken by a tourist on a whale watch boat off the coast of Madagascar in 2011. The tourist posted the photo on Flickr, where it was discovered by a scientist, who realized that the whale flukes in the photo matched those of a female whale that researchers had photographed off the coast of Brazil in 1999. Using the two photos, the researcher was able to determine that this individual female whale had traveled 6,089 miles--a new record for whale migration.
PWF is committed to finding ways to enlist whale watch vessels and the people aboard them to gather data about whales and marine life. "It's our vision to have an online site where the public can upload their photos of whales, GPS coordinates of where the whales were sighted, and their own notes about the whales' behaviors or pods," said Kaufman. "And then we also picture making it possible for ordinary citizens to scan through our database of whale fluke identification photos to find matches to the whales they have photographed."
Just recently, PWF launched its Whale and Dolphin Tracker software, which allows its vessel staff, naturalists and captains to instantly upload data about the whales and dolphins encountered.
Individual dolphins are identified by examining their dorsal fins. Pigmentation patterns, scars and the shape of the trailing edge of the fins help to identify individual animals.
The data is transmitted to a central database linked to the Web page at www.pacificwhale.org/content/whale, where scientists, wildlife managers and the public can view a real time map with GPS coordinates and details of marine mammal sightings. This program, first tested in 2010 and 2011, relied upon PWF's vessel staff using Netbook computers to transmit the data.
"This was our first step in a program that will ultimately go worldwide," said Kaufman. "We are now working on an app that will allow wildlife watchers with smart phones to tap in the species that are observed and the time, date and GPS location, then upload it to an international Whale and Dolphin Tracker Website. We later hope to collect fluke identification photos that are obtained during whale and dolphin watch tours."
"Here in Maui County, PWF has seven whale watch vessels collectively making as many as 25 trips in a day, and covering hundreds of miles, with dozens of cameras and smart phones recording what is sighted," reported Kaufman. "This is far more area than what could be covered by one or two small research boats."
"All in all, it's an extremely exciting time for whale research," he continued. "These new developments will greatly speed up what the scientific community is learning about whales and dolphins around the world."
In June of 2011, PWF presented the Whale and Dolphin Tracker to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission in Norway and received an enthusiastic response. The group of noted scientists from around the world recognized the tremendous power of a worldwide whale and dolphin tracking system.
"With climate change, we'll want to know where the whales and dolphins are found worldwide," said Kaufman. "This is a step that will let scientists see where the world's whales and dolphins are on a real time basis."
PWF is also using research data to prevent vessel-whale collisions. A study of humpback whale surprise encounters and near-misses on whale watch boats conducted over the past two years is being expanded to include data gathered from a shore-based station overlooking Ma'alaea Harbor, where researchers are observing boat-whale interactions.
Another PWF research study is gathering data on toothed whales and dolphins found within the four-island region of Maui County. PWF is also conducting studies of humpback whales in Australia and Ecuador, and blue whales off the coast of Chile.
To learn more about PWF's research, visit www.pacificwhale.org.
An avid whalewatcher, Anne Rillero is the communications manager at Pacific Whale Foundation.