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Sanctuary Supports Program to Name Humpback Whales

contact: Anne Smrcina, 781-545-8026, ext. 204

How do the humpback whales of the sanctuary get their recognizable names? It’s all part of a regional collaborative effort that brings together scientists and naturalists who work with these whales on a day-to-day basis. This year, the sanctuary again supported the annual whale naming workshop.

Begun in the mid-1970s as an informal method of distinguishing commonly seen whales, whale naming has grown into a formal procedure involving all of the major whale research groups from the northeast. This year some 30 individuals representing organizations from Maine to Connecticut came to the March 25th proceedings. The workshop was organized by the Whale Center of New England (formerly Cetacean Research Unit) of Gloucester and the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown. The Center is the keeper of the master database of humpbacks in the Stellwagen Bank region.

Of the 70+ new whales (new calves born in the winter of 1999/2000, and juveniles and adults not previously seen), 64 were named. The only whales left unnamed were those whose identifying photographs were not clear enough to provide distinctive distinguishing marks.

Certain specific rules apply - the names must be based on the pattern of black and white marks on the tail flukes, the shape of the trailing edge of the flukes or the dorsal fin; the names cannot be gender specific (since researchers do not often know the sex of the newly recognized animals); the names should not be that of specific persons (except in exceptional cases); the names should be one word; and they should be clearly understandable (especially over faulty sound systems on noisy boats).

Assigning common names to whales makes identification simpler in the field. Humpbacks display their dorsal fins and tails when they dive. Researchers can often spot distinctive marks in the field; for other whales, photographs can be compared to the master database for verification of identification.

The flukes (the flared right and left portions of the tail) show individually identifiable differences from whale to whale - a whale "fingerprinting" system. The flukes range from pure white to pure black with a range of patterns and marks in between. Natural marks appear as a calf and stabilize after a year. Scars can happen at any time - white scars on black backgrounds and black scars on white backgrounds. Scars can be the result of orca and/or shark attacks (especially on the young), fishing gear entanglements, barnacles and other parasites, ship strikes, and other at-sea interactions.

Names this year include "Lighthouse" so-called because of distinctive marks on its left fluke that look like a pointed tower; "14" named for lines that look like that number; and "Denali" got its name for white scars on its left fluke that appear to be northern lights shining down on a mountain.

Many of the whales named at the workshop were spotted during the 2000 whalewatching season in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Sanctuary support for the workshop covered digitizing of images, research and confirmation of "new whale" status, and organization of the workshop.

"Sanctuary support of this effort is important both in making this group of endangered animals more familiar to the general whalewatching public as well as allowing researchers to better understand the composition of the resident population," said Anne Smrcina, the sanctuary’s education coordinator. "Part of the sanctuary’s mission to to preserve and protect its living marine resources while promoting marine research and education - this is one step towards those goals," she added.

Photos of the newly named whales are posted on the sanctuary’s website at gallery/newwhales.html along with information about why each whale received its name.



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