If you’ve ever been on a whale watch, you’ve no doubt seen a naturalist busy snapping photos of the whales encountered. Far from taking pretty pictures, in most cases the naturalist is taking shots to identify and record the sighting of individual whales. With whales who are recurring visitors, they can track their life histories–their health, births, and wounds, and by comparing photographs with those of other organizations they can track migration patterns.
From the Whale Research Station at Peninsula Valdes in Argentina our aerial photographer John Atkinson captures the southern right whales from above–hanging out of an airplane–in order to photograph their callosity patterns (raised patches of skin covered by white cyamids, or whale lice). Roger Payne discovered in 1970 that each individual has a distinctive pattern that is used for identification.
Our Right Whale Program, run in collaboration with the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas (ICB), is longest continuous study of a great whale based on following the lives of known individuals, and because of that we have thousands and thousands of photographs of individuals dating back to 1970. This helped our Right Whale Program Director Dr. Vicky Rowntree make a happy discovery recently. As she was analyzing the 2011 aerial survey slides, she found Whale 125 with a calf. Whale 125 is a female southern right whale with a wound on her back which Roger thinks may have been from a harpoon. We first saw her in 1972 with a calf, so that would make her at least 48 years old in 2011, given an age at first reproduction of 9 yrs. Her sighting history is:
1972+, 1975+, 1978+, 1981+ (MC rel only C), 1987, 1989+, 1992, 1998+ and 2011+ (+indicates with a calf)
This is one of the great rewards of long-term research—being able to understand the life events of an individual whale in a broader context and what it means to the population and the species. As Vicky said when she made the discovery, “She has survived a lot and given birth to seven calves, despite the fact that her serious wound has not changed much since 1972. What a survivor and a great lady!”