Tracking Whales Using Guests’ Photos to Deepen their Understanding

With automated image recognition of humpback whales, Happywhale’s digital tools add fascinating depth to the sightings of citizen scientists – while enabling them to contribute meaningfully to global conservation.

A Whale seen in Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica
Photo: Yuri Choufour / Hurtigruten Expeditions
A Whale seen in Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica. Credit: Yuri Choufour / Hurtigruten Expeditions

To witness whales thriving in their natural habitats is one of the most profound experiences a person can have. Seeing one of these preternatural beasts emerge suddenly from the sea and gracefully send its vast tail skyward before disappearing into the depths is one of nature’s most thrilling spectacles.

For the eager-eyed guests aboard Hurtigruten Expedition’s ships, Happywhale’s ingenious project seeks to add even more layers to each experience like this. By uploading their whale pictures from the ship – or even from a whale-watching expedition boat – the successful whale spotters will be able to identify the whale and see its history, such as where it roams at different times of the year.

Harnessing moving moments to go deeper

The founders of Happywhale know that a beautiful encounter with a whale opens a person’s heart and eyes to critical environmental issues. Yet this teachable moment is a fleeting window in time. So, Happywhale wants to immediately add the broader context of a whale’s life, to make the most of each opportunity.

When a guest photographs a whale, the accompanying naturalist will be able to add the stories of ‘their’ whale. This will give them a directly relevant and powerful teaching tool to create empathy for and understanding of life in the seas – either immediately or during a presentation later.

In this way, these dedicated conservationists are providing a way to both enhance the observer’s experience and invite them to look deeper into the conservation of these mighty mammals. Meanwhile, the guests will be making real contributions to global whale science by enriching the data available.

Successfully testing the concept in a beta version

To see if the idea was viable, Happywhale built a test version of a digital tool. They started assembling a database of photographs of tail flukes, so that new photographs can be compared to them using automated image recognition. They also collected information on each whale, such as known sighting locations and dates.

Expedition staff with quality camera gear could then photograph a whale and later set the image recognition software to work on finding a match with a whale that was already recorded in the database.

The feedback from the experts using this this beta system was extremely positive.

Creating live access with support from Hurtigruten Foundation

At the same time as testing the concept, Happywhale’s eager staff continued adding more and more whales to the database, finally passing 68,000 known individuals!

With such a large dataset, Happywhale were well on the way to seeing their dream through to reality. Next, they needed to make it accessible to the world and make it work well in the field – or rather, on the ocean.

With support from Hurtigruten Foundation of NOK 50,000 (approx. USD 4,900) and NOK 45,000 (approx. USD 4,400) from Hurtigruten Expeditions, Happywhale is now developing a mature version of the digital tool. Their new, robust software and hardware architecture will include a mobile app and web portal. These will enable live field access for Hurtigruten Expedition's ships and enable marine mammal experts to immediately identify and learn the history of humpback whales they encounter. Moreover, the system will become global in reach, reliably delivering results in all the oceans where humpback whales roam.

A brilliant use of technology

Conservation science that is both engaging and accessible like this is a rare and potent teaching tool. By putting this powerful capability into the hands of staff in the field, Happywhale will help them share conservation science in a personal, relevant, and authentic way – precisely in the moments when the impact can be most profound.

Consequently, Happywhale believes that thousands of travellers will benefit from this project. What’s more, it will enable cruise guests to contribute data that will bring real-world benefits for scientists and conservationists.

About Happywhale

Happywhale’s mission is to increase global understanding and caring for marine environments through high quality conservation science and education. They aim to make it easy and rewarding for the public to participate in science by building innovative tools that engage people in marine mammals and serve the research community.

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