Green Pages

Fingerprinting Whales

Using whale sightings by citizen scientists in the Turks & Caicos Islands

By Cathy E. Bacon M.Sc., Mithriel M. MacKay Ph.D., and Katharine Hart M.Sc.
Photos By Katharine Hart, Deep Blue Charters, Grand Turk

There are few places in the world like the Turks & Caicos Islands where humans can enter the water and photograph some of the most spectacular, charismatic, and important animals on the planet. The Marine and Coastal Ecology Research Center (MCERC) is working closely with TCI residents, visitors, and whale watch operators and their guests who are enthusiastically contributing important data through citizen science initiatives.

Photographs of humpback whales Megaptera novaeangliae (and dolphins!) can provide a great deal of information. There are two primary catalogs for humpback whale images: HappyWhale ( and the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue ( Scientists from all over the globe contribute images to these catalogs in addition to keeping their own smaller catalogs specific to their areas. Because the images are curated by dedicated and skilled scientists, the unique pigment patterns on the underside of whales’ tails (flukes), scars, and other natural markings can be used in scientific investigations.

Marks and scars observed in photographs are used by researchers to identify individual whales.

The pigment patterns on the flukes are a “fingerprint” and make it possible to match the images and determine how far within the Caribbean the whales travel, where they have been sighted on their feeding grounds in much higher latitudes, which other whales they are seen traveling and mating with throughout the North Atlantic, and so much more.
Citizen Scientists (this could be you) are submitting snapshots and videos of the humpback whales underwater. Social media makes it easy to submit photos to MCERC and, in turn, creates a forum for MCERC’s senior marine biology staff to share information about these charismatic animals.
The FaceBook group, “Turks and Caicos Islands Humpback Whale Sightings” (, was created and is maintained by Cathy Bacon. Cathy is a Senior Research Associate and co-author of multiple publications based on the marine mammal research studies with MCERC. Cathy communicates directly with the citizen scientists and shares the exciting matches that their contributions glean. The TCI Humpback Whale Catalog, maintained by MCERC, submits images on behalf of citizen scientist photographers and the research team to the larger repositories. They can be viewed globally by scientists studying these species.
This past winter (2018/19) alone the citizen scientists, including whale watch operators, have provided images that were matched to Samaná Bay or Silver Bank, Dominican Republic (Joanne Buddle, Alcides Falanghe, Humpback Dive Shack), Newfoundland (Pat Mezzina, Joanne Buddle, Ines Moosman, Beth Grassette, Humpback Dive Shack), and the Gulf of Maine (Sean Brady, Jim Hayes, Paula Faiferman, Dave Dietze, Jay Lawson, Amy Looby, Shelley Jensen, Kell Talbot, Katharine Hart—Deep Blue Charters) helping MCERC to understand movement patterns and behaviors of migrating whales throughout the North Atlantic. The data captured by people enjoying their experience in the TCI is combined with the science team’s data and then shared with other researchers through publication in peer-reviewed journals and presentations. The photographers are always acknowledged as a valued part of the MCERC science team.
Whales, dolphins, and porpoises (cetaceans) in the TCI are not well studied. Whales and dolphins are often seen from land and vessels throughout the TCI and while the tourism industry (from large cruise ships to small tour operators) recognizes the TCI as an attractive destination for visitors, the impact to local cetacean populations is unknown. There is preliminary evidence suggesting the Turks & Caicos is a significant migratory destination for North Atlantic humpback whales, as well as other resident cetaceans. Year-round, Cetaceans have been sighted nearshore and offshore, including bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), deep-diving offshore species (sperm whales [Physeter macrocephalus], beaked whales) and shallow swimming nearshore species (pilot whales [Globicephala sp.], dolphins).
MCERC is dedicated to providing research and education opportunities aimed at increasing an investment in conservation and preservation of healthy marine and coastal ecosystems. Collaborations with people among the TCI is a valuable resource for promoting interest, gathering information, and maintaining an understanding of the elements most important to residents.
MCERC supports scientific research of marine habitats and encourages participation of investigators with a similar mission. In 2017, MCERC began their primary project in the TCI in collaboration with the Department of the Environment & Coastal Resources (DECR), investigating the humpback whales wintering off the Turks Bank. Humpback whales migrate from the North Atlantic feeding grounds to lower latitudes throughout the Caribbean during their winter breeding season (January–April).
An unexpected, yet incredibly important, benefit of the TCI Humpback Whale Citizen Science Project has been the increased awareness of global concerns regarding tourism and its impact on the humpback whales that are so loved throughout the Caribbean. There has been a great deal of misunderstanding that visitors are solely focused on getting as close as possible to the whales. Tour boat operators in the TCI have access to feedback from tourists and researchers through the FaceBook group which is highlighting two very interesting points for this economically important industry in the archipelago. First, tourists are more concerned with the well-being of the whales (especially moms and newborn calves) than getting too close to whales. Guests seek out whale watch operators that have responsible approaches to the whales, and shy away from the aggressive operators who are perceived as putting whales in danger. This means that a tour boat operator who chooses the best interest of the whales over getting too close to the whales will make more money through positive reviews and tips by their guests! The FaceBook group has been an effective way to communicate the best practice for operators and the positive response from guests.
The second exciting outcome from the TCI Humpback Whale Citizen Science Project has been the following by people who love the TCI from near and far and want to stay connected to the activity of the humpback whales. It will be interesting to see if people visit TCI as a result of reading about this research project that includes the people who know the country best. The membership to the group is steadily growing.

Become a citizen scientist

Images of the tail fluke of humpback whales are useful for identification.

With your help, the marine biologists at MCERC will continue to build a better understanding of humpback whales in the TCI, the Caribbean, and the North Atlantic. If you have been lucky enough to go whale watching in the TCI, we would love to include your data to the MCERC TCI Humpback Whale Catalog. The FaceBook group has all the information explaining how to submit your video and still images and notes that even a seemingly poor photo can provide important information. Cathy Bacon and the rest of the science team can answer your questions.
In fact, the more questions you post in the group, the more people will learn about TCI humpback whales, dolphins, turtles, and all topics related to marine biology. Summer is here and the humpback whales have traveled north to feed. You can become a citizen scientist while you organize all those photos you captured this winter. Join the FaceBook group and submit your video and photos from any year in the TCI and let’s discover if your photos match a humpback whale observed in the North Atlantic!

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