humpback whale breaching in Alaska
Credit: NOAA photo library

A humpback whale first seen 35 years ago in Southeast Alaska was photographed swimming off Maui in February 2006 and in Seymour Canal in December 2006 — becoming the longest scientifically tracked humpback on record.

The whale, thought to be a male designated NMMLID 229, was identified by comparing photographs of the markings and shape of its flukes. Using images of distinctive features to keep track of long-lived, ocean-crossing marine mammals like humpbacks and killer whales (scientists photograph the left side of orca dorsal fins and saddle patches) has evolved into one of the most important tools in a cetacean scientist’s box.

This particular whale was first sighted in 1972 in Lynn Canal near Juneau by pioneering whale researcher Charles Jurasz. Its flukes went into a federal database, allowing scientists to pinpoint the animal off and on over decades.

“With last year’s sightings, this whale has the longest identification record, 35 years, of any humpback whale”, said NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center Director Doug DeMaster said in a NOAA news release. “The record is a tribute to Charles Jurasz’ pioneering work, which started in the mid-1960s, long before whale biologists considered using photo-identification as a research tool.”

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