The Pacific Whale Foundation has been awarded an $85,000 grant from the Australian Marine Mammal Centre Grants Program to develop "Whale Tale," an online platform to crowdsource the matching of Australian humpback whales using fluke identification photographs.
The grant came through Australia's Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. It reflects the desire of Australia's government to understand and protect the humpback whales that migrate along Australia's coasts each year, between their feeding grounds in Antarctica and their mating and calving areas near the equator.
Australia has been an outspoken critic of Japan's "scientific whaling" program, which relies on killing minke whales in the Southern Ocean region. The "Whale Tale" program is one example of the non-invasive, non-lethal whale research that Australia supports and promotes.
Test your skills. Find the two matching flukes in this series of fluke identification photos. With Pacific Whale Foundation’s crowdsourcing program, the public will be able to help researchers comb through thousands of whale fluke photos online to find matches.
Photo: Pacific Whale Foundation
"Through 'Whale Tale,' people from around the world will be able to go online and help with whale research," said Greg Kaufman, founder and executive director of Pacific Whale Foundation. "It is a way to accelerate human understanding of whales."
Pacific Whale Foundation, in collaboration with the Centre for Whale Studies, has conducted whale research in Australia for more than 28 years and has individually identified more than 9,000 humpback whales from various points along Australia's east and west coasts, using a method known as fluke photo-identification.
Humpback whales have unique markings and coloration patterns on the ventral surface of their tail (or flukes). The flukes range from mostly all white to mostly all black, with an infinite variety of mottled black and white patterns in between. Many whales also have permanent scars on their flukes caused by sharks, killer whales or scrapes with rocks, hard surfaces or barnacles on other whales.
"As a whale dives, it frequently lifts its tail out of the water which gives us an opportunity to photograph the flukes," said Kaufman. "These photographs allow us to identify individual whales."
As with the human fingerprint, no two whales have the same fluke print.
A whale that was photo-identified off the northeastern coast of Australia may also be photographed along the most southeastern point of the continent--but it takes hours of time to sift through all of the fluke photos to find the two matching photos. Computers can speed up the process but do not do the job nearly as well as humans.
"The human brain has an unbeatable pattern recognition ability," noted Kaufman. "By using crowdsourcing, we aim to efficiently find matches from among the thousands of individual photos of whale flukes and get the most accurate results."
"When we find a match--meaning that a whale has been sighted in two locations--it provides data that can be used to create models of humpback whale population abundance, trends, and distribution," he said. "Crowdsourcing can offer the effort and redundancy needed for scientists to manage their current catalogs of individually identified whales and also facilitate the integration of other catalogs from other researchers."
The first phase of the Australian crowdsourcing project will integrate the Pacific Whale Foundation and Centre for Whale Research catalogs of individually identified whales into one photo database, available online in an open-source queriable format.
Next, Pacific Whale Foundation will construct a Website that allows users to log in and match a subset of fluke photographs, both within and across the catalogs. The program will be promoted to Pacific Whale Foundation's more than 215,000 Facebook fans and supporters worldwide with a reach of over 80 million. Pacific Whale Foundation will monitor and improve the program by studying the success rate of finding "matching" whale flukes, and user satisfaction with the program.
"Once we have proven crowdsourcing as an effective matching mechanism, we will incorporate a user-upload feature, whereby the public can submit their own fluke photos to be matched against the catalog," said Kaufman. "We also look forward to expanding it to include humpback whales worldwide, including Hawai'i."
"So, if you are someone who would rather skip the same old reality shows on television and head to the Internet to do something meaningful with your time, we hope you will take part in 'Whale Tale' when it is launched," said Kaufman.
Current plans call for the launch of "Whale Tale" in 2014. For updates on the program, visit Pacific Whale Foundation at www.pacificwhale.org or become a friend of the organization on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PacificWhaleFoundation