“T046s? Maybe T137s and T046Bs too? “Looks like T049C over there!”

“Come on, fluke up!” “Yes! It’s BCY0524!”

“Oh, there’s an open saddle!

Anyone who has been on one of our whale watch tours from Victoria will have heard variations of these phrases from our crew as we approach whales. What is this secret code? What are those letters and numbers? What is an open saddle? What are we talking about and why is it important?

At Eagle Wing, our goal with every tour is to inform and inspire—to transform our guests into passionate advocates for the health of the Salish Sea and its wildlife. This is why we provide more than just a “look” at the whales. It’s very important to us that you make an emotional connection with these animals and their ocean home.

One of the ways we make that emotional connection is through whale identification (IDs). We routinely document our sightings, and share the data with researchers and other trained observers in the region. Researchers use the data for whale conservation purposes. And we share the accumulated knowledge with you!

A family of killer whales swims close together.
From left: T046E, T046, T137, T137B, T122 / Karac Lindsay Photography, Eagle Wing Tours

Here are seven cool facts about whale identification that we’d like you to know:

1. It’s all about the what, who, where and when

As soon as we encounter a whale or group of whales, we get to work. As we’re introducing you to the whales, we’re documenting the species, where we are, how many animals are present, direction of travel, and general behaviour.

We’re searching to see if all family members are there, and making note if someone isn’t. We’re looking for new babies. And we’re keeping a keen eye out for health concerns or any other threat, such as entanglement.

We’re also taking photos for proof of presence. And we’re logging our observations and whale identifications in real-time on a private cell phone app used by all members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. Eagle Wing is proud to be a regular contributor to this database, which is steadily building into one of the most comprehensive whale sighting databases in the world!

Two images combined, comparing the dorsal fins and saddle patches of a Bigg's killer whale to a resident killer whale.
Bigg’s and resident male killer whales, showing variation in dorsal fin shape and a closed (on the left) and open saddle patch. Valerie Shore Photography, Eagle Wing Tours

2. We can identify individual whales

Fortunately, we can tell individual whales apart! Most species of cetacean have physical features that help us ID individuals, although some can be more challenging than others. We’ll focus here on killer whales and humpbacks.

We identify individual killer whales by the dorsal fin and by the greyish blotch of skin just behind it—called a saddle patch. Dorsal fins come in many shapes and sizes, although the differences can be subtle. Some have permanent nicks or gouges. And every killer whale has a saddle patch that is shaped and scarred uniquely. It’s the killer whale equivalent of a fingerprint!

If it’s a closed saddle patch—meaning one solid blotch of grey with no black intruding into it—it can be either a southern resident or a Bigg’s killer whale. In that case, we look for other physical features to make an ID. But if it’s an open saddle patch—with black pigmentation intruding into the grey—we know it’s a southern resident killer whale.

3. We use killer whale “mugshots”

Almost 50 years of field research on killer whales off the BC and Washington coasts—by the Center for Whale Research, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and others—has resulted in handy photo-identification catalogues of dorsal fins and saddle patches. In recent years, the white eyepatches have been added to the ID toolkit. They’re shaped uniquely too!

On the boat, all we have to do is make a match to the dorsal fin and saddle patch mugshots in the catalogue. Because we’ve learned so much about family relationships over the years, presto, we know which killer whale family we’re looking at!

An excerpt from a photo identification guide that shows the lineage of a family of Bigg's killer whales.
Page from Bigg’s killer whale ID guide showing T065A family.
(from Photo-identification Catalogue, Population Status, and Distribution of Bigg’s Killer Whales Known From Coastal Waters of BC, Canada by Jared Towers et al, 2019, Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

4. Each killer whale has a number

Now, about those letters and numbers. When a baby killer whale is seen for the first time, it’s assigned a number by researchers based on its maternal lineage.

For example, T046B is an adult female Bigg’s or transient (T) and is the second offspring (B) of a matriarch known as T046, who was the 46th Bigg’s killer whale to be identified and catalogued many years ago. T046B’s first calf, a daughter, is known as T046B1. Her first calf in turn is T046B1A, and so on.

For southern resident killer whales which live in multi-generational pods, the numbering system is slightly different. But maternal lineage still rules. There are three pods in the southern resident community—J, K and L. The number you’re assigned depends on who your mother is and your birth sequence. The newest calf, for example, is the 45th surviving calf born to a K-pod mother (K20) and is therefore known as K45.

An excerpt from a photo identification guide that shows the different pigmentation patterns and scarring on the underside of humpback whale flukes.
These are all “Y” whales! See how each one is uniquely marked?
(page from Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea by Mark Malleson and Tasli Shaw, 2022 Edition)

5. Humpbacks have their own ID alphabet

For humpbacks, which don’t hang out in family groups or pods, the whale identification system is similar but different. We have an onboard ID guide to humpbacks of the Salish Sea compiled by researchers. It includes contributions from many trained observers on the water—including Eagle Wing photographers. Think of it as citizen science on a 40-ton scale!

With a humpback, we look at the underside of the massive tail as it dives. Each fluke has uniquely patterned skin pigmentation, scratches and barnacle scars that can be matched to tail “mugshots” in the catalogue.

Off BC, humpback IDs are divided into “X,” “Y” and “Z” whales. The flukes of “X” whales are mostly black, “Y” whales are a mix of black and white, and “Z” whales are mainly white. Researchers assign numbers to humpbacks too, such as BCX1057, and BCY0324 and BCZ0414.

What’s supercool is that humpback researchers in other regions do the same thing, and do their best to harmonize the ID numbers so that we can track sightings of individual whales as they move around the Pacific!

A good place to see humpback sightings information on a grand scale is the online platform happywhale.com, which uses pattern recognition software to identify individuals. You can even upload your underfluke photo with location information and they’ll do their best to identify it for you!

An image of a humpback named Ace who has a scar on its right fluke that resembles the ace of spades.
Ace (MMY0222) the humpback showing the namesake mark on his or her right fluke.
Valerie Shore Photography, Eagle Wing Tours

6. Many whales have nicknames

Let’s face it, it’s quite a mouthful to say “Wow, we saw BCY0785 breach today!” Or “We saw T63 today!” Or “J35 has a new baby.”

It’s much easier to say “Wow, we saw Mathematician breach today!” And “We saw Chainsaw today!” And “Tahlequah has a new baby.” Right? We bet you’ll remember those names. And that’s the point. Once we give them a name, their family histories and personalities come to life. There’s that emotional connection we’re looking for.

Nicknames are often inspired by unique markings or by some distinctive aspect of the whale’s personality or life history. For example, “Ace” the humpback has a namesake white mark on his or her right fluke. Young Bigg’s killer whale “Lucky” got her name because she was born healthy even though her mother beached on a sandbar while pregnant!

A killer whale named T137A or Jack was monitored by observers for strange behaviour resulting from a serious wound to his tail stock.
Bigg’s male Jack (T137A) was observed behaving strangely in August 2019. It was later determined he had a serious wound on his tail stock. He was monitored and has since healed.
Valerie Shore Photography, Eagle Wing Tours

7. IDs are an essential whale conservation tool

Sure, it’s fun to identify each whale. And it’s great to know their family histories. But do photo IDs help the whales?

They certainly do! Photo IDs are now the cornerstone of modern whale research. Whale identification information—from contributors such as Eagle Wing—allows scientists to monitor individual animals and gather valuable data over time about population size, migration, distribution, health, reproduction, family and social relationships, and behaviour patterns.

The accumulated information is used to detect population-wide problems, develop recovery strategies and evaluate the impact of management and conservation efforts. And in some cases, monitor or assist individual whales in trouble. Actual examples include an orphaned and lost killer whale calf, humpbacks entangled in fishing gear, and a killer whale with a serious injury. There are many other examples.

So there you have it. The next time you take a tour with us, and hear us tossing out letters and numbers as we scurry for our big cameras and cell phones, that’s what we’re doing. YOU get us out there on the water, so It’s one of the many ways you’re helping us contribute to whale science, education and conservation!

To book a tour and watch us in action, give us a call or book online!

Promoting science-based research is a fundamental part of the Eagle Wing Tours mission! Working with community partners, we actively conduct and enable research on our vessels in areas as far-ranging as fish scale collection for herring studies, whale scat collection for humpback feeding studies, documentation of porpoise sightings, and general marine mammal sighting and observational data collection.

Blog written by Valerie Shore, marine naturalist with Eagle Wing Tours

Updated November 8, 2022