Identifying cetacean can be an arduous task, especially from long distances, on choppy seas or when the mammal is about to dive. Fortunately, there are various distinguishing factors for each individual species. An observers process of elimination is perhaps the best method to identifying a species, for example, a dolphin seen in a certain area of the world eliminates hundreds of others, just due to the fact that it has been spotted in that location.

Other factors include;

Unusual features

Features such as the bulbous head of the sperm whale.

Size

A whale measuring over 25 metres long can only be either a fin or blue whale.

Dorsal fin

Male orcas are the only species with the distinctive vast, triangular and black dorsal fin.

Flukes

Some whales have a high arching fluke before diving, species such as sperm and humpback whales.

Spout

Sperm whales blow in a singular spout at a 45-degree angle while baleen whales such as the blue have a giant, thin vertical plume.

Dive sequence

Sperm whales tend to dive once for a long period of time (up to one hour) before resting on the surface. Baleen whales such as a Bryde’s whale will shallow dive 4 or 5 times, 5 minutes a-piece before one longer dive.

Behaviour

Humpback whales for reasons not fully understood seem to be a far more boisterous species, they tail-slap, breach and spy-hop to name a few, Blue whales however rarely do any of these.

Group size

Many dolphin species such as Atlantic spotted or Spinner dolphins travel in super-pods of up to 1000 individuals, whale species including blue and bowhead are often solitary.

This is a great deal of information, and every point be extremely useful in identifying a whale while on a tour or even from shore. However, when it comes to science and logging crucial data (migration patterns and specific, individual whale monitoring), this is not enough.

The important role of Fluke ID

Fluke cataloguing has been an extremely beneficial method of identifying whales since the late 1970’s, and in recent times has become even more meticulous with modern tech and artificial intelligence (AI). All across the globe in various locations scientists and citizen scientists such as our local HHR team are uploading hundreds of thousands of images of thousands of humpback whales.

Why do this? Well, by conducting this research marine biologists can more accurately determine whale numbers in the oceans of the world, and astoundingly can determine, from images, that a humpback whale seen in Alaska in 2003, is the same species seen off the coast of Mexico two years later. Each whale can be identified by either their distinctive black and white patterns on the underside of the fluke or obvious fluke shapes and wounds. Furthermore, to make things slightly easier for the individuals that undertake the cataloguing of flukes there are 5 classes of humpback whale fluke identification. There are 5 categories for each shade of fluke, 1 being the palest (often completely white fluke) to 5 being the darkest.

A great way to learn more about humpback whale identification is to join a 3 day humpback whale research expedition with Dr. Olaf and the team of Humpbacks and High-rises.