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Cutting it with citizen science – following a whale from the Caribbean to the Arctic via Scotland

Steve Truluck is a whale watching guide and skipper for Hebridean Whale Cruises, Gairloch, Scotland. He began his journey into the wonderful world of whales and dolphins as a volunteer for WDC Shorewatch, our citizen science programme in Scotland. He is a regular visitor to Norway and contributor to scientific research. In his guest blog he explains how he and his friend, Lyndsay Mcneill followed a humpback whale's migration from the warm waters of the Caribbean to ice-cold Norwegian seas via Scotland.

humpback blows
Golden humpback blows in Norway taken by Steve Truluck

The blows from a ‘supergroup’ of some 30 humpback whales glow golden as they hang in the still, bitterly cold, Arctic air. As we approach, that magical sound that only  large whales can make as they exhale and then inhale, resonates all around us. After a few more breaths, the whales start to dive. Up come the tail flukes and I’m frantically pointing my camera in all directions, trying to get clear photos for identification purposes.

The humpbacks are here in Arctic Norway, like the orcas, to feed on the over-wintering herring and we’re here on holiday to watch them. Even when I’m on holiday, I’m keen to get identification photos of humpbacks and orcas to help researchers and organisation like WDC to better understand their travelling and behaviour patterns. Every humpback whale has a unique pattern on his or her tail fluke and, in the same way that we use human fingerprints to identify people, or dorsal fins to identify bottlenose dolphins, these patterns are recorded, catalogued and used to identify humpbacks. This technique is known as ‘photo ID’. Because we can recognise individual whales by studying photographs of their tail patterns, we know that they travel to warm waters to breed and nurse their young before moving to colder seas to feed and fatten up.

Several weeks after I got home from my Arctic travels,  I received a message from a friend of mine, Lyndsay Mcneill, who had been trawling social media trying to match humpback whale flukes seen in Scotland. Amazingly, she found a match for a humpback observed by the whale watching company I work for up here on the west coast of Scotland. She’s matched it with a whale spotted in Iceland!

Lyndsay is a hairdresser from Edinburgh. For the last few years humpback whales have been paying Scotland’s capital a visit between January and March. This has caused great excitement in the local community and a small group of people, including Lyndsay, got together and created ‘Forth Marine Mammals.’ The Facebook group grew due to regular sightings and photos capturing the whales in front of the city making the national press. The whales, as they so often do, unified a community drawing people in from all over Scotland and England to see them. WDC supported the group by setting up one of its land-based whale watching locations, allowing locals to record data on the whales’ movements as part of its citizen science Shorewatch programme.

Humpback from Granton, Edinburgh
A humpback breaches at Granton, Edinburgh taken by Ron Macdonald

Fluke photos were taken over the years at the Forth and Lyndsay found her passion, doggedly searching social media pages and whale ID catalogues from all around the Atlantic trying to get a match for the whales she’d been watching. Incredibly, she found a match with a photo taken in Svalbard, half way between northern Norway and the North Pole!

Beginner’s luck? Absolutely not.  Greeting the news of her second match, I realised I can help Lyndsay out. As expected, she’s over the moon with my gift of 39 humpback fluke photos taken during my holiday in Norway.

Screenshot of humpback flukes
My humpback tail fluke photos from Norway

Within minutes of receiving the photos she got a match! It seems that indelibly etched in her memory are the patterns of the humpback flukes seen in Scottish waters and she’s even able to retrieve the matching photo from a Facebook page to confirm it. Amazing.

The very next day, another match and this one is particularly exciting. Lyndsay recognises this whale as one who has been seen in both Scotland and by a citizen science programme in the Caribbean. Her sharp eyes and photographic memory have completed the migratory cycle between the Caribbean breeding grounds in Guadeloupe, up through Shetland and north to the feeding grounds of Arctic Norway.

Whale tail
My photo of the whale in Norway
Whale tail
The whale photographed in Scotland by Brydon Thomason of Shetland Nature
Two whale tails
The whale photographed in the Caribbean breeding grounds by Cedric Millon from Observatory of the Marine Mammals of Guadeloupe Archipelago (OMMAG)

So how does she do it? All she thinks about is whales! She’s up at all hours tenaciously looking through social media posts and comparing photos. Many of these photos have been available online for many years without being matched, even by the researchers who took the photos. Clearly, then it’s not an easy process to get a match. Lyndsay also has her favourite flukes that she’s determined to track, and who would bet against her?

Unfortunately, Lyndsay hasn’t seen a humpback for herself so far this year, but along with many others she’s still hopeful they’ll put in their annual appearance in Edinburgh. On the upside, her late-night efforts are completing the citizen science begun by those of us taking the photos.

From hairdressers and tour guides to fishers and holidaymakers, we can all contribute and work together for the benefit of these magnificent creatures who give us so much joy. Now more than ever, social media and low cost high-quality cameras are making it easier for us all to get involved and compliment the work done by researchers and scientists. So, get out there, enjoy watching these amazing creatures and if you can, get involved in citizen science, perhaps through WDC’s Shorewatch programme or by supporting your local sightings network on social media platforms.

You can also support Lyndsay, like many others have already done, through collaboration and by joining her Facebook group: ‘Scottish Humpback id’ which records matches and collates photos of Humpback whales seen in Scottish waters.

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