New Insight into Humpback Whales

Humpback Whale Fluke

Humpback Whale Fluke by E. Hawkins (c) 2010

Tourist accidentally reveals new insight into humpback biology

In the past decades researchers have discovered a lot about the secret life of humpback whales and their migration. This species is known to travel incredible distances from south to north and back (for example from Antarctica to the warmer waters of eastern Australia and Fiji) along many coastlines in the world.

Researchers gained this information by the use of a database in which they are able to identify the different whales. Identification of humpback whales is done by matching photos of their tail fluke, which all have a very distinct color pattern. Of course it is way too expensive to follow a whale along all of its migration. However, by sharing information and photos between different countries, researchers know which whale goes where during the migrations.

When a Norwegian tourist made a nice picture of a humpback whale during his holiday in Madagascar in 2001, he never expected to contribute to a very important research discovery. He recently posted the photo on flickr (a photo sharing website). A researcher was astonished to find that the whale on the picture of the tourist was the same animal that was photographed in Brazil in 1999 for research purpose. This is the first known migration of a humpback whale from west to east and also the longest migration of any mammal ever recorded! The female humpback whale traveled over 9800km, probably in search of a mate. Humpback whale females are known to make long migrations, but until now it was thought that mostly males would swim greater distances.

The fact that whales might travel from west to east could also influence their genetic profile. Researchers used to think that there were a small number of isolated breeding stocks, but this female definitely stirs up this theory. Of course, more sightings are necessary to gain knowledge about this ‘typical’ behavior. Hopefully this Norwegian tourist sets an example that you don’t need to be an expert to still be able to contribute to research.

Have you seen a dolphin? Even better, did you capture a photo of a dolphin’s dorsal fin between Moreton Bay and Coffs Harbour, Australia?  The Dolphin Ecology and Acoustics Project are being helped by the community who are reporting their dolphin sightings. 

Report your sightings and help protect Australia’s dolphin populations! You can find all the information that you need on the website ( under the headings ‘report a dolphin sighting’.