Clip | The Whale Detective - How to Identify Individual Whales

Determined to find the whale that breached on his kayak in a viral moment, Tom Mustill enlists the help of the founder of Happywhale, a citizen science database that collects thousands of whale tail photos. A humpback’s life story is written in the unique pattern of scars on its tail flukes.

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- [Narrator] I know about humpback whales in general, but I've become intrigued by my whale.

Is there a photo of it somewhere?

Could I even identify who it is?

- [Off Screen] Oh, fluke! Beautiful.

- [Narrator] I've heard of someone who can help me find out.

- I guess people would call me the whale tail guy.

- [Narrator] Ted Cheeseman runs an unparalleled humpback whale photo identification service.

- I've now looked at way over 100,000 images of whales.

- [Off Screen] Has that made you weird?

(laughs) - Could be.

- [Narrator] Ted's database is called Happy Whale and it relies on a very helpful feature of whales' tails.

- Humpback whales' tails are really fantastic.

They will tend to scar black on white.

- [Narrator] A humpback's life story is written in the unique pattern of scars on its tail flukes.

- [Ted] You can use the bite marks of killer whales, you can use scars from entanglement in fishing gear, barnacles leave a little round scar.

- [Narrator] For decades, scientists had painstakingly assembled catalogs of humpbacks' tail flukes, which they gave to Ted.

- 7,000 images of 3,000 known individuals over the past 25, 30 years of whale science in California.

- [Narrator] Ted's big idea was to combine these catalogs with the constant stream of whale-watching photographs.

- So you see a whale, you take a photograph, send it to Happy Whale.

We'll identify that individual.

It might be the whale Grumpy, it might be Frosty, one of my favorites.

- [Narrator] People's holiday snaps have become a scientific tool.

- [Ted] We have identified about 1,500 in the last three years.

So, that's coming close to, say, 70% of individuals in California.

- [Narrator] Is there a chance we could track down my whale?

(upbeat music)