Identifying Humpback Whales

Picture of By Matthew Essex

By Matthew Essex

Salty Swims Co Founder

A Citizen Science Humpback Whale Fluke Identification Project

A Humpback whale breaks through the surface to catch his breath. His motion is fluid and graceful but he’s far from inconspicuous. He leaves an imprint on the surface, made by his massive body displacing the surrounding water and above, a cloud towers over head. The remnants from his last exhale fading in the wind. He surfaces several times to saturate his body with fresh oxygen before heading for the deep. On his last interval he arches over, shaping his body into a hump to guide his body downwards into a steep dive. He raises his tail which shows us his enormous fluke. It’s the last that we’ll see from him for a while and everyone onboard knows it. Their cameras frantically click away trying to capture that iconic shot of a whale tail before it sinks down into the blue.

Little did they know, but the successful photographers among them were gathering valuable research content that could be used to chart the life cycles of whales and monitor their populations around the world. These details might not seem overly valuable but it’s thanks to research such as this, that has helped the population of migrating whales return to 70,000 individuals in Australia. A conservation success story when you consider their numbers were as little as 1,000 in 1963 when whaling seized.

Identifying Humpback Whales – How can a photo of a whale fluke help?

Just as we can be identified by our fingerprint, a Humpback whale can be identified by the markings on the under-side of its fluke. Whale flukes vary from mostly all-white to mostly all-black with an infinite variety of mottled patterns and scars unique to that whale. This provides a reference to compare them-by therefore allowing for identification. Scientists catalogue the identified whales and when a new fluke photo comes in, it’s compared to previous findings. Computer software is used to speed up the process and whittle the search down to close matches, then it’s all down to the human eye. If a match is found, this indicates that the whale has been sighted in two locations and provides data that can be used to create models of humpback whale population, trends, and distribution.


Happywhale is such a project enabling researchers and citizen scientists from around the world to participate in this fluke identification research.

Identifying Humpback Whales – What can you do to help?

  1. Upload your photos – It’s quick and easy to do, click here. Once you have submitted your first photo you’ll be welcomed onboard the Happywhale team and provided with a member account. As you upload more photos, you’ll be list of whales grow and possibly learn where else they’ve been spotted from other member sightings. Read on for advice on how to capture the perfect shot.
  2. Help from home – Participate in the Humpback Whale identification. All that is required is a computer, an internet connection and some spare time. You’ll help by reviewing Humpback Whale sighting photos and marking points on each whale’s tail – This work helps to guide their computer algorithms to identify individuals.
  3. Contribute To Whale Rescue Efforts – As part of a global network of whale research and conservation organizations, Happywhale occasionally learns about whales in need of immediate, live-saving assistance. With your contribution, they can support whale rescue efforts led by trained rescue teams. Donate today!
  4. Get out there and Swim-with-Whales – Not only will you have the opportunity to gather more valuable photography to donate to this cause but a portion of your ticket price in Western Australia goes toward the conservation of the Ningaloo Reef and its population of visiting Whales.

Identifying Humpback Whales – The perfect shot

Before you head out on your next Swim-with-Whales tour or Whale Watching trip it will helpful for you to gain a better understanding of how these fluke photos are selected and assessed. Save this blog post to your bookmarks. You can then refer back to this text on the day, to refresh yourself with best practices and camera settings.

Best Practice:

  • Set you camera’s Time & Date to the local time and turn on your camera’s GPS, if it has one. If not, download a GPS tracking program onto your smart phone and screenshot your location at the time of sighting.
  • If you are using a point and shoot camera, use the optical zoom only and crop if needed on the computer. Digital zoom negatively impacts image quality.
  • Memory cards with faster write speeds will allow you to take more images without your camera filling up its buffer.
  • Always try to take photographs when the sun is behind you, or at least not behind the whale.
  • Use both hands and keep your arms and elbows in to steady the camera.
  • Always have your camera ready by holding it up in front of your face. Always be scanning and avoid fixing your sight into one place. Point the camera where you are looking at all times. Have your finger on the shutter release button so you are able to move and react quickly.
  • Observe the whales’ behaviour. The ideal photograph is taken as the animal is headed away from you. Prior to “fluking up”, a whale will arch its back giving you a precious few seconds to take a shot. Zoom in and frame the flukes in the centre of the image. Take multiple shots as the whale dives and save the best one for submission.
  • Last but not least, it takes patience!

Camera Settings:

  • Turn off any ‘auto-off’ feature on your camera to keep it ready to shoot at all times.
  • Use a single auto focus point or a single zone to more tightly control where your camera is focusing.
  • Set your camera on ‘burst mode’ to increase the frames per second.
  • When using a camera that has adjustable settings, Tv or S mode (Shutter Priority) is preferred, with shutter speeds of 1/1000th of a second or faster to keep your shots sharp. If you are using a point and shoot, sports mode may be used but may not push your shutter speed high enough for good results.
  • Ideally keep the aperture at f/8 or higher, as a greater depth of field is often needed with a large animal and it gives you some forgiveness with missed focus.
  • ISO should be kept as low as possible for the light conditions, typically not above ISO 800 if possible depending on your camera.

Uploading your Photos:

  • Upload all of your photos. The Happywhale team will determine which are best for ID purposes.
  • Full resolution. JPEGs preferably but they’ll also accept RAW files.
  • Alongside your photos, you’ll be asked to provide where you were and the name of the vessel. Exact coordinates are ideal but not critical.

Identifying Humpback Whales – Have you been involved?

If you have taken part in Humpback Whale identification projects before, or you’re still involved, then please share with us your experience in the comments below. Our readers and I would love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading. Please do leave your comments, we appreciate any feedback you have. You can also join our mailing list below if you like, that way we can make sure that you don’t miss our next blog. AND, if you have any questions or a positive topic you would like to share, just as many have before, please feel welcome to email me directly at the bottom of the page.

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