The What, Why, and How of Humpback Whale Photo Identification

Humpback whales have a unique pigmentation pattern on the underside of their tail (flukes) much like a “thumbprint” that allows us to identify individual animals. Beth, who has been doing humpback whale photo-ID since 1980 as part of Eye Of The Whale, has created an interactive catalog where she post fluke photo IDs as well as “Best Of” pictures of humpbacks whales seen along the Kohala Coast (primarily between Blacks Point and Anaehoomalu Bay out to ~3nm). These pictures are not under permit, as they are taken strictly “opportunistically” when whales have approached a vessel close enough or with the use of telephoto lenses, as these days with digital photography and image stabilizing telephoto lenses, much can be done to provide a somewhat identifiable fluke photo. All pictures are copyrighted by the author, please contact for use request.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks and NOAA, Alaska Fisheries Science Center have created an educational website that explains the value of photo ID, how to take the pictures and what to look for when matching flukes. Instead of recreating all this information for our site, we ask you to please refer to their site as it will make using our catalog much more enjoyable.

An EXCELLENT source for matching flukes is Happywhale. Happywhale engages citizen scientists to identify individual marine mammals, for fun and for science. I highly recommend you submitting flukes to HW as they can match ID’s from around the world including any in Hawaii.

The bulk of the photo ID’s have been taken along the west coast of the Big Island, known to have the largest population of whales on the Big Island.

Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Boundary: To the 100-fathom (183 meter) isobath from Upolu Point southward to Keahole Point, Hawaii. Blue elliptical approx area for most fluke ID photos in this catal

Note: When out whale watching, unless under Federal Permit, please follow NOAA whale watching regulations.

“Observe whales from a safe distance of at least 100 yards—the length of a football field—unless other species-specific rules apply. For example, federal law requires vessels to remain 100 yards away from humpback whales in Hawaii and Alaska waters, 200 yards from killer whales in Washington State inland waters, and 500 yards away from North Atlantic right whales anywhere in the U.S.”

Photo ID Legend

The catalog is broken down into five pigmentation categories: from 00-10% (almost all black); 10-25%; 25-50%; 50-75%; 75-100% (almost all white). This helps in trying to find matches, but of course, the % is very subjective, so you might find a match in either of the adjacent categories.

Example Label:25_17a_BG_2007_02_28_R_Cow_Shimmy_HIKC

Label Legend (from left to right):
% White
ID number
Initials of author
R: Resight  or match within same area
RA: Resight or match outside of initial area or Hawaii with first initial of State

Description of animal: Cow, Calf, Escort, Competitive Pod
Whale name if given
HIKC: Location abbreviation (Hawaii Kohala Coast)

BG= Beth Goodwin (EOTW)
BG-JRF= Beth Goodwin (JRF)
JMc= Jeff McConnel
CBC= Charles Carden

We Hope You Enjoy The Who’s Who of Kohala Coast Whales!