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.
- [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?