To recognize marine cetacean individually, most researchers use a non invasive way called photo identification.

Every dolphins and whale are unique and a way to identify them is to take pictures of specifics parts of their bodies. Researchers create then a catalogue with every different fins or fluke according to the species they would like to study. Photo identification could be a very long process and there are many ways to analyse your pictures. We decided to use new artificial intelligence technology and worldwide catalogues to share our data.

Our collaborator Kyma, a marine mammal association based in the Mediterannean sea co-produced a very nice video about photo ID and it’s importance. They took an example of an orca population that was found in Ligurie.

How to take photo ID in the field:

Take pictures of the creatures using a camera with a good lens (ideally minimum 300mm).  Pay special attention to the fins, fluke and head.  Use an identification book to make your best guess of the species at the time.  Species information can be updated by comparing pictures.  Don’t hesitate to consult the identification book.  There are 86 species of marine cetacean and even a well-trained person needs some help.

It’s important to collect environmental data and behavioural response as well when you are taking photo ID for this have a look at this article.

During our journey if we received the permits we might try to get closer to the animal approaching them slowly, always on the side and try to not cut in front of the way they are swimming. The engine will stay on but at a low speed. 

Photo identification of dolphin:

Dolphins tend to come to the boat more easily and like to bow ride. This is always a very good way for us to identify the species, count the number of animals and estimate if there are calves or juveniles in the pod. We will record the time that they spend with us and if they do special behaviour. 

For photo ID identification with dolphins, it’s generally their dorsal fins that are interesting. You will want to take them on a very perpendicular angle and on both sides ideally. Basically, every species can be identified with their dorsal fins but generally.  Pilot whales, Killer whales, Bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins have their fin profiles well catalogued because they are bigger and more distinctive.

Photo ID of bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncatus) from Bunbury – Australia @virginie wyss. You can see that some dolphins have notches and some others scratches. Notches are very good to identify dolphins while scratches tend to disappear with time. This is a good Photo ID where we can see many individuals and if you see them several time you can then make parallels and see which animals are in association.
Photo ID of Killer Whale (Orcinus Orca), here for example, the angle is not good for photo ID. We might have some indication but it’s not good enough to be matched with artificial intelligence or manually unless you know your population well. 

Whale Photo identification

For whale species, pictures of different parts of the animals are desired.  For example, Blue whale, sperm whale and humpback whales can be identified as individuals by their fluke (Tail fins).  The best photo id is to take their fluke just before they go for a (long) dive. Some species like The North Atlantic Right whale are identified with their head and their calluses. 

For Fin, Sei, Bryde and Minke whales it’s good to have as many details as possible of their dorsal fin and body as those species are difficult to Photo ID because they are less marked. 

Fluke of a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) from the Mediterannean sea. The pictures are not perfect (as the delimitation of the fluke is not so sharp, but we can already see some pattern and artificial intelligence might be able to match it. 

Fluke of a Humpback whale (Megaptera novaengliae ) taken in Canada. This is a very good photo ID, that could be matched by artificial intelligence.

For our journey we have investigated many applications and protocols to arrive at the conclusion that we needed our own methods and database.

We developed a method to record our sightings with Mobi ID database that works on a tablet and all our observations will be entered live and at the end of the day exported to our Arcgis map, like this you will see our sightings almost real-time. You can have a look at the species we have encountered in the Azores here. For Photo Id we will export our best pictures to Fluke book an artificial intelligence platform. To learn more about it you can have a look at our article about artificial intelligence here. If you want to know what to look for out at sea, have a look at this article.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us!