Identification of Humpback Whales

Each whale has a unique pattern on the underside of its tail fluke, which can be used as a fingerprint, allowing researchers to identify individual whales.  In the years that we have been living among these whales, we have learned that each whale, like our species, are clearly distinct individuals; and that their uniqueness extends beyond their distinguishing fluke patterns shown in the subsequent photographs.  Our hope is that this catalogue is a first step towards discovering and appreciating the individual personas of these magnificent humpback whales.

The Naming System

The resident humpback whales in our catalogue are organized according to identification numbers beginning with one of three prefixes: BCX, BCY, or BCZ.  The letters “BC” refer to the province of British Columbia or CS for Caamano Sound, and the letters X, Y, and Z, provide a general indication of the darkness of the fluke, so that a BCX fluke is mostly dark, a BCY fluke is about half-covered in white markings, and a BCZ fluke is mostly white.

The local nicknames, found at the top right of each identification shot, were given by Janie, Hermann, students of Hartley Bay, research assistants and those that have sponsored a whale.

What To Look For

Knowing what to look for in a fluke is the key to identifying an individual whale.  After seeing the general coloration of the fluke from dark to light, you can narrow it down to the BCX, BCY, or BCZ range, the next step is to observe distinguishing characteristics.

  • Large scars or wounds in the fluke profile (the unfortunate causes of these deformations, such as propeller strikes or rake marks from Bigg’s transient orca attacks, make identification quick and easy)

  • Notable markings on the fluke – Are there many circular barnacle scars? Do the markings show any recognizable shapes?

  • The trailing edge of the fluke – Are there any large divots? Is it generally smooth or very rough?

  • The general fluke shape – Are its tips pointed, rounded, or curled? Are there large aggregations of barnacles on the tips?

Canadian Pacific Humpback Collaboration

Through the CPHC, we are collaborating on a coast-wide scale with humpback whale research groups to build a comprehensive humpback whale identification catalogue that incorporates all known humpbacks in BC. for humpback whales in collaboration with The CPHC catalogues Humpback Whales off the coast of British Columbia.

The centralized catalogue and database of individual Humpbacks enable understanding of the whales’ habitat use, behaviours, population size and structure, life histories, and the impacts of threats like vessel strike and entanglement.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) maintained a province-wide catalogue of Humpback Whales off Canada’s Pacific Coast up to 2010. Members of the CPHC were among those who contributed data to DFO and ensured cataloguing of Humpbacks continued beyond 2010. The CPHC has retained DFO’s alphanumeric system of assigning Humpback Whale catalogue names e.g. BCY0710.

The efforts of the CPHC have informed research beyond British Columbia, including the reassessment of North Pacific Humpbacks by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

Additional members of the Collaboration are the Marine Education and Research Society (coordinators of the CPHC), Pacific WildLife Foundation, North Coast Cetacean Research Initiative – Ocean Wise Conservation Association, Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea, Keta Coastal Conservation, and Whales of Clayoquot and Barkley. The efforts of the CPHC are supported by DFO.