How the Happywhale network supports oceanic health
According to Happywhale, conserving the oceans starts with the whales.
Founded in 2015, Happywhale is an international program composed of whale enthusiasts, researchers, and tour companies that contribute whale fluke photos in order to further our understanding of cetaceans and the marine environment.
To facilitate this cooperation, Happywhale has provided an online database at happywhale.com where fluke photos can be collected, organized, and studied.
Since the beginning of the program, Oceanwide Expeditions has assisted Happywhale’s data-finding efforts by encouraging both staff and passengers to submit their own fluke photos taken during our Arctic and Antarctic expedition cruises.
Image by Marian Herz (the first Oceanwide fluke submission in March, 2015)
“The Oceanwide account now has 500 whale encounters listed with Happywhale,” says Hans Verdaat, researcher at Wageningen Marine Research, a Dutch science institute and fellow contributor to Happywhale.
“By uploading fluke pictures to the program,” he explains, “the details of these whale encounters are made available to researchers all over the world.”
Image by Kathrin Freise
But why flukes in particular?
Unique markings on a whale’s fluke and dorsal fin are highly indicative of that whale’s personal story, which can be quite extensive: Breeding migrations, battle scars from orca encounters, or entanglements in fishing nets are all common whale experiences.
The data collected by these images allows Happywhale to track whale movements in a non-invasive way, while also bringing attention to the marine ecosystem as a whole.
Image by Gary Miller
And because of Happywhale’s vast photo ID catalogue, even far-ranging whales that travel between significantly different climates (such as tropical and polar regions) can be individually identified.
Whale images uploaded to Happywhale by Oceanwide contributors are even linked to the Oceanwide voyages on which they occurred, giving visitors to the Happywhale website the option to view all whale encounters on a particular Oceanwide Arctic or Antarctica cruise.
Image by Thijs van den Berg
Even so, Verdaat is often asked if it’s worth allowing expedition cruise ships into certain parts of the polar regions due to their impact.
“Actually,” he says, “expedition companies like Oceanwide fill a valuable gap in our research, since the areas they tour are seldom visited even by researchers. Fluke photos from the Ross Sea, mid-Atlantic, and eastern Greenland, for example, come almost exclusively from expedition cruise ships.”
But while all this whale data is useful in itself, for Happywhale there’s still more to it.
Getting companies, institutes, and individuals involved in this process encourages them to build a personal relationship with the oceans and their wildlife, thereby becoming more invested stewards of the marine environment.
“In this sense, there’s no division between any of the contributors to Happywhale,” Verdaat says. “The main thing is that we’re all cooperating to contribute to science.”
Title image by Arjen Drost