whale Photography Instructions

Photo identification of Blue and Humpback whales off California

Prepared by Cascadia Research Collective For Oceanic Society

This handout will provide the reader with a brief introduction to photographic identification of humpback and blue whales, as well as provide basic instruction on how to take an identification photograph and what supporting data should accompany these photographs.

This handout does not permit/allow/encourage/authorize anyone to approach a whale or marine mammal within 100 yards or harass the animal in any way. Marine mammals are protected from harassment by humans under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and endangered species such as blue and humpback whales have greater protections from human interference under the Endangered Species Act. Harassment is often interpreted to mean a situation in which the natural behavior of an animal is altered as a consequence of human action.

Since the 1980s whale researchers along the U. S. west coast have taken photographs of blue and humpback whales for individual identification purposes. These photographs are used by researchers to track individual whales over seasons, years and lifetimes. Using these photos and the location of the sighting it is possible to determine population sizes, migration patterns, feeding and breeding areas. Oceanic Society has assisted with photo id of humpback whales in Costa Rica in the winter and in the summer volunteers have obtained important identification photographs of whales off  California. These data and photographs are shared with Cascadia Research Collective a non-profit scientific and education based organization in Olympia, WA. Using photo identification Cascadia Research conducts long-term research on humpback and blues whales along the West Coast of the United States as well as off Central America.

What to photograph:

Each blue whale has a unique pigmentation pattern on its back below the dorsal fin, this is the area that should be photographed (Figure 3). The ideal photograph of a blue whale would be taken at the moment when the dorsal fin is clearly visible and an even swath of back in front and behind the dorsal fin can be seen. Both the left and right side of the blue whale should be photographed, and if the whale lifts its tail (they do sometimes) the underside of the tail should be photographed.

Humpback whales are identified using photographs of the undersides (ventral side) of their fluke (tail) which have unique pigmentation and trailing edge patterns. The ideal photograph of a humpback whale would be taken as the animal is headed away from you at the moment when the whale has lifted its fluke, and you can see the full shape of the fluke in your viewfinder. Compare figure 1 and figure 2 for humpback photo.

How to take a whale identification photograph:

Photographs of whales should be taken with a 35-mm SLR or digital cameras equipped with telephoto lenses (100-300, or 400 mm lens). Setting your ISO at about 400 is probably safe and gives you a higher quality photo than one with a higher ISO setting. We often set our cameras ISO then put in "shutter priority mode" so that we can adjust the shutter speed as needed. Higher shutter speeds (~800-1000) are best since you and the whale are likely moving. Depending on the speed of your autofocus you can decide whether to use your auto focus or to manually adjust the focus. Taking photographs of birds flying will help with your timing and your focus.

All cameras should have their internal clocks set to local time, this is very important. Digital cameras should have the memory cards "reformatted" after downloading photos and the image numbers should be reset so that you start with 001 at the beginning of the day. Do not delete photo in the field, that could change the frame numbers that you have written down on the datasheet.

Figure 1. Good quality humpback fluke. Ridging visible, as well as pigmentation and scratches.
Whale tail
Figure 2. Poor quality humpback fluke, fluke angled forward, and too dark to see pigmentation.

Figure 3. Good quality blue whale ID photograph. Dorsal fairly fin centered, and large amount of back visible.

Supporting data

For a whale identification photograph to be useful it must be accompanied with the date encounter , location (GPS coordinates), the photographers name and the vessel name. These are the most basic data that must accompany photographs submitted. We are including a datasheet in this handout, and instructions on how to fill it out for submission, the data sheet should help keep your photos organized and linked with your encounter information.

How to Submit Your Photograph

You may submit your photos by mail on a CD.

Next Step:  Read our INSTRUCTIONS, where you can then select your method of submission.




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