Citizen Scientists Needed to Help Study Humpback Whales!

Written by on February 19, 2014 in Other News, Whales & Dolphins

Editor’s Note — Sailors for the Sea is a nonprofit ocean conservation organization that educates and engages the boating community in the protection of our oceans. Every month, they publish an article on a marine conservation issue.

Remember to be responsible whale watchers!

Remember to be responsible whale watchers! Photo credit: orca_bc via photopin cc.

Calling all boaters from the North Atlantic to the Caribbean seas! Researchers need your help tracking humpback whales.

Sailor’s for the Sea’s latest Oceans Watch essay was written by Nathalie Ward, PhD, from NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. She writes about CARIB Tails, a new citizen science project that will benefit humpback whale research and conservation efforts. Dr. Ward recently spoke with MST to tell us a little more about the project and how important the boating community can be.

CARIB Tails is a photo-identification program that allows scientists to track the migration and monitor the recovery of endangered humpback whales. The program relies on citizen scientists who contribute by submitting photos of humpback whale flukes.

Scientists can identify individual humpbacks by black and white pigmentation patterns and scars on the underside of their flukes. They have catalogued humpback whales in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the Gulf of Maine since the early 1970s. The North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue contains photographs of more than 7,000 individual humpbacks, with details about when and where the whale has been sighted. Every time a new photo is submitted, scientists compare it to The Catalogue and can learn a little more about what that individual whale has been up to.

Humpback whale tail.

Humpback whale tail. Photo credit: NOAA/AFSC.

The collection of photos also helps scientists track the humpback whale’s annual migration, which is the longest migration in the animal kingdom. Humpbacks spend the summers feeding in northern latitudes and then head south to spend the winters in warm Caribbean waters where they give birth and nurse their young. About 1,000 whales return with their calves to NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Maine every spring.

CARIB Tails is enlisting boaters as citizen scientists to help track the movements of humpback whales between their North Atlantic feeding grounds and their breeding grounds in the Wider Caribbean Region, with a focus on the eastern Caribbean where data is lacking.

Now is the time when boaters in the Caribbean will start seeing humpbacks. Ward explained to MST that the humpbacks leave the feeding grounds in December and begin to arrive in the Caribbean in January, peaking in February and March. Generally humpbacks are coastal animals so there’s a pretty good chance of spotting one. If you’re in the right place at the right time, take some photos and send them in and you’ll be contributing to an international research project.

Ward’s primary message to sailors: “This community can make a difference for safe passage for humpbacks.”

Read the whole essay here: An International Citizen Science Project for Boaters.

Humpback whale tail.

Humpback whale tail. Photo credit: NOAA/SEFSC.

Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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