Humpback what?

Humpback whales are distinguishable from other whales by their huge pectoral fins and their special song. They are often found close to the coast and they are known for their impressive jumping behaviors. The humpback whale is a charismatic animal that migrates yearly between feeding and breeding areas. They enjoy the cold waters to find their food and look for warm waters to encounter a partner and give birth. There are twelve populations of humpback whales in the world. Humpback whales were severely impacted by commercial whaling until the lnternational Whaling Commission established a no-catch policy in 1985. Fortunately, some populations are recovering thanks to this policy, but others are still struggling. In order to help them, scientists all over the world are trying to find out how population recovery works and what makes some whale populations recover while others don’t. Humpback whale research is quite recent, since it started in the seventies.


” Humpback whales have been severely impacted by commercial whaling. To help them, scientists need to find out how population recovery works.


collecting data in the field - Joëlle De Weerdt

Collecting data in the field and listening to the whales singing

Always on the move

In my research, I look at the ecology of humpback whales migrating from the USA to Central America. Since humpback whales are highly mobile animals, understanding threats in the breeding and feeding areas as well as en route is essential to propose conservation actions. Conservation could include safe guidelines for whale watching, maritime traffic management, use of sustainable fishing techniques and regulation of (plastic) pollution. To know what measures should be taken and where, we need to gather information about the whales and their migration routes. But the vast area that these animals cover makes it difficult to collect a lot of data. On top of that, Central America is a region with little research effort on humpback whales. That’s why I wanted to try a different approach.

Citizen science saves the day

In 2016, I set up a non-profit organization (Association ELI-S) to start the Cetacean Conservation Project of Nicaragua*, that focuses on effective conservation of marine ecosystems. It’s a community-based science program that combines education and research.


*Cetaceans are marine mammals belonging to the zoologic order ‘Cetacea’, including dolphins, porpoises, and whales.

Within this project we raise awareness amongst local children (aging 6-12 years) and fishermen, as well as tourists that join us to become “scientist for a day”. We’ve held environmental science classes and workshops for almost 190 kids and organized information sessions for about 100 fishermen in the hope of shedding light on the presence and the importance of humpback whales in the area. Our project is mainly driven by volunteer observers that share their observations with us from the field. Citizen science allows communities to actively participate in research and help unravel questions concerning unstudied species in an area. Since 2016, more than 50 observers have helped us to collect scientific data.

Bay of San Juan del Sur where the research project was carried out.

Children taking part in our environmental science workshops in the Padre Ramos nature reserve.

Typical fishing boats in Nicaragua.

Citizen science data ELI-S project

Data from our citizen science project.

Humpback whale research uses photo identification, a non-invasive method to identify individuals through the color patterns on the ventral part of the tail (also called a fluke). Observers capture the position, time and behavior of each individual whale that they observe from land. If they are on a boat, they also try to get pictures of the fluke.

Unexpected observation

One day, I was sent a picture of a fluke. I uploaded it on the online platform Happywhale, which is an automated recognition software that compares pictures from all around the world. It turned out that the reported whale was migrating from the Gerlache Strait, Antarctica! I was extremely excited about this outcome. Humpback whales from Antarctica have never been reported migrating further up north than Costa Rica (southern neighboring country of Nicaragua).

Fluke of a whale at sunset

Fluke of a whale at sunset


” this could mean that Nicaragua had not only one, but two populations of humpback whales passing its shores … 


Possible migration routes of the humpback match between Nicaragua and Antarctica

Possible migration routes of the humpback match between Nicaragua and Antarctica


Initially I was studying humpback whales migrating from the USA, but this could mean that Nicaragua had not only one, but two populations of humpback whales passing its shores … One moving south from the USA, and one moving up from Antarctica. This finding raises so many questions: Since when are whales migrating to Nicaragua? Is it a sign of population recovery? Are whales looking for new habitats? Is there an influence of change in water temperature? Is Nicaragua a permanent breeding ground? Of course we need to gather more data through a scientific program to solve these questions and unravel all these mysteries.

The implication of this research is huge. Understanding the presence of humpback whales in an area allows scientists to determine potential threats and propose conservation measures to governments. One thing is sure, this finding is the result of citizen science efforts and international collaborations. Who said that the general public could not impact whale conservation?

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Photos: © ELI-S, Joëlle De Weerdt