Cataloging Humpbacks Is No Easy Task
I’ve just recently returned from spending a week in Bar Harbor, Maine, where I worked with colleagues at Allied Whale, a branch of College of the Atlantic. This was my first trip up there, and my first time meeting most of the folks who curate the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog (NAHWC); the purpose of the trip was to search through this catalog to match individuals that had been seen in the past few years.
WDC curates a catalog of humpbacks from the southern Gulf of Maine. We share our sightings with a number of other organizations, namely the Center for Coastal Studies, who manages the Gulf of Maine humpback whale catalog. This catalog contains over 2,700 individuals which have frequented our waters (Gulf of Maine) since 1976. In contrast, the NAHWC contains over 8,000 individuals, and is known to be missing a number of humpback whales seen in the Gulf of Maine! Images are submitted to the NAHWC from all over the Atlantic, and include all of the sightings we (WDC) have as well.
For me, this trip was a great opportunity. Every organization has a different system for matching whales and maintaining their catalog. Since I’ve spent the last five years working with WDC’s catalog, it was beneficial to see another cataloging process. I also gained an appreciation for how “easy” it is to only search through 2,700 whales as opposed to nearly 9,000! It also didn’t hurt that this is the office view at Allied Whale…
In addition to the whales we document in the Gulf of Maine, we are working with our Whale SENSE partners south of Cape Cod to learn more about humpback whales along the busy east coast of the US. In recent years, there seems to have been some changes in the distribution of humpbacks along the East coast, and places such as New Jersey, New York, and Virginia have had quite a few sightings. The problem has been that we don’t necessarily know why these whales are being seen here (sometimes they are feeding, other times they seem to just be traveling), how long they are staying, or who they are. Being able to determine these things will help us understand their activities a little better, which in turn will help us protect them more efficiently! Currently, there is very little protection for whales in these areas despite their status as endangered species. If we are able to demonstrate their need for this habitat, we can put that data into action and request that NOAA increase protections in these areas.
All of the humpbacks that have been seen along the East coast will be added to the NAHWC as well. Some of these whales have been matched to Newfoundland and areas outside of the Gulf of Maine, which makes for some pretty neat sightings! While I was working in Bar Harbor, I had a neat sighting of my own while on a whale watch with Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company; we came across a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale! As a participating company in the Whale SENSE program, they stayed back the required 500 yards from the whale and promptly called the sighting into the Coast Guard.
Unique sightings like this one are why I can truly say I love my job. You can never predict what is going to happen, and sometimes you are witness to the most incredible things! I am beyond grateful to all of our supporters for helping us carry out the important work that we do to ensure that every whale and dolphin is safe and free.