Citizen scientists track humpback health 1 photo at a time
Vessel strikes blamed for death of 11 humpbacks in Gulf of Maine
Whale experts who say the North Atlantic right whale population isn't the only species endangered by ship strikes are relying on the work of citizen scientists who help track whales by their markings.
According to the research group Allied Whale, 50 humpbacks have died in the Gulf of Maine over the past two years and of that number, 11 were hit by vessels.
While humpback numbers seem relatively healthy — 22,000 according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, compared to 500 right whales — Allied Whale is collecting as much information as it can to understand migration patterns and threats to the population.
That's where people like Kris Prince come into play.
During the summer months, he spends about 12 hours a day on his Zodiac shuttling tourists out on the water for up-close encounters.
"It's a dream job, it really is. I never worked a day in my life at it! Every time I go out, it's like my first trip."
Prince and his wife Shawna own Sea of Whales, offering tours out of Trinity, Newfoundland.
They love helping visitors snap pictures they'll treasure, but it's the photos Kris and Shawna take themselves that they really value.
It's a dream job ... every time I go out, it's like my first trip.- Kris Prince
The Princes have been documenting humpback whale tails for 16 years.
They identify animals by the black and white patterns on the two tail lobes. The flukes, as they're called, are all different, like human thumbprints.
Kris and Shawna figure they've identified about 800 individuals since 2001.
"It's really important to have a handle on the numbers and the changes that we're seeing in this area," said Shawna Prince.
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The Princes share their photos Allied Whale, which has been collecting tail shots since the 1970s.
"It's really a thrill for us when we make a match on an animal that hasn't been sighted in a very, very long time," said Shawna Prince.
"One of our biggest ones was finding one that hadn't been seen since 1974 ... and the last time it had been seen was off the coast of Puerto Rico."
Inspired by pioneer in the field
Reg Kempen is from England but spends summers in Port Rexton, Newfoundland.
He got hooked on whale watching 20 years ago. Now he catalogues photos too.
"You're looking at the fluke for something that stands out to you. There's one that has the letter F and it's lying on its side and to me that is F [that's] fallen and you'll know that whale when you see it again."
Kempen said the work of a well-known Newfoundland and Labrador whale lover has inspired him to continue with the effort.
"A lot of the whales' history that we have of these animals is traceable to John Lien who used to do research work at Memorial University and without all of the stuff that he did as a kind of bedrock for all of this we wouldn't have known," said Kempen.
"There's an enormous number of these whales that have got either his name or one of his research team attached to previous sightings and we all owe him a great debt and I think we shouldn't forget that."
DEEP TROUBLE | Right whales in peril
After an unprecedented number of deaths this summer, CBC News is bringing you an in-depth look at the endangered North Atlantic right whale. This week, in a series called Deep Trouble, CBC explores the perils facing right whales.
- Disappearance of right whales from winter breeding grounds a mystery for scientists
- Right whale rescuers wary in wake of death, anxious for work to resume
- The untold story of whale rescuer Joe Howlett's death
- What's killing right whales? P.E.I. wildlife pathologists spend summer searching for answers
- Uncertain future of the North Atlantic right whale linked to its tiny prey
- Snow crab fishery to keep 'sustainable' label amid endangered whale deaths
- Right whale skeleton, DNA headed to Canada's largest museum
- 7 right whales entangled this summer, new data shows
Deb Young is inspired to continue Lien's work too.
She escapes the hot summers in Chicago to spend time in Bay Bulls on Newfoundland's Southern Shore, where she fell in love with humpbacks.
Ready to sound the alarm
Young has binders and binders full of whale tail photos telling the stories of 1,000 humpbacks she's identified.
"Citizen scientists, I think we are important. The scientific community is finding out that, yes, we're not trained in this, but logic tells you how to do this and what you're looking for," Young said.
"With the right whales, with sharks, with anything in the sea, at this point, we need to see how our creatures are doing because if they're not doing well, then we're not going to do well. It's kind of our temperature isn't it?"
Deb Young and other citizen scientists are determined to identify as many as they can and sound an alarm at any sign of change.
"We normally see four to five mom-and-calf pairs but this year we've only seen one so that's a little concerning. We don't know if they've just found a better place to feed or if they're just not having as many calves, don't know," said Young.
"There's so many more questions that we don't have answers to and this is the only way we can try to find out."
Back in Trinity Bay, Reg Kempen keeps up the search for tails and for others who share his passion.
"We need some youngsters to come in and get interested in it as well because otherwise, the work won't get done anymore.