Nfld. & Labrador·DEEP TROUBLE

Citizen scientists track humpback health 1 photo at a time

Save your photos of whale tails. You could be a citizen scientist!

Vessel strikes blamed for death of 11 humpbacks in Gulf of Maine

Citizen scientists track humpback health

5 years ago
Duration 5:16
Whale experts want to collect as much information as possible on humpback whales and some citizen scientists have been able to help out.

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.

Kris Prince owns Sea of Whales whale tours in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. He has been photographing whale tails since 2001. (CBC Newfoundland and Labrador)

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. 

A whale known as Angie has been identified as a repeat visitor to Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. Patterns on whale tails are like human thumbprints and are used to identify them as individuals. (Kris Prince)

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. 

The Princes share their photos Allied Whale, which has been collecting tail shots since the 1970s. 

Shawna Prince and her husband Kris have have identified more than 800 individual whales. (CBC Newfoundland and Labrador)

"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."

Reg Kempen fell in love with whale watching 20 years ago. He has been taking photos of tails and cataloguing them as a citizen scientist. (CBC Newfoundland and Labrador)

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.

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.

Deb Young has identified more than 1,000 humpbacks after years of whale watching and photography in Bay Bulls, Newfoundland. (CBC Newfoundland and Labrador)

"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." 

Excited tourists see a full humpback whale breach in Bay Bulls, Newfoundland. (CBC Newfoundland and Labrador)

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.


Jane Adey

CBC News

Jane Adey hosts CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now, Land & Sea and On The Go.