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Learning about the photo identification programs with Pia Markovic

There’s an iPhone feature that sorts photos using facial recognition, categorising frequently photographed faces into groups. Interestingly, it can work for Southern Right Whales too, albeit a little more haphazardly. “Basically, there are different ways of identifying all whales. And because Southern Rights have distinctive callosities (louse-covered callouses) on their faces (rostrum), we essentially use facial recognition to identify them,” Naturaliste Charters marine biologist Pia Markovic explains. “This is usually painstakingly categorised by a scientist, but emerging technology is helping advance this. It even works on phones if you have enough photos of the same whale.”

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Southern Right Whale approaching the vessel at Geographe Bay. Image: Naturaliste Charters

Pia explains that Naturaliste Charters research staff use different identification methods for different whale species when recording and photographing their unique marks. “With Humpback Whales we look for scarring on their dorsal fin and other unique markings on their body. With Blue Whales we again look at the dorsal fin as well as look for unique markings on their body. With Orcas we are looking for marks on the dorsal fin, eye patch and saddle patch. And with Sperm Whales we are looking at their tails,” Pia explains. 

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Orcas/Killer Whales can be identified by marks on their dorsal fin. Image: Naturaliste Charters

Guests, too, are encouraged to note down any unique markings on whales they might see while on an expedition, helping Pia and the team of marine biologists expand their information database. “Through photo identification, we learn more about population size and composition, migratory distribution, and individual usage of a resting area over its lifetime,” Pia explains. “The collecting of whale identification images – which is done in a collaborative effort with Western Whale Research – can provide an insight into an individual whale’s life, as well as the species.”

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Guests can contribute their photos to assist in identification. Image: Naturaliste Charters

Defining Geographe Bay as an ‘emerging aggregation area’ in 2019 was reward enough for the scientists and Pia. “This means one step closer to protecting these whales,” she says. 


Dunsborough Whale Watching

The tranquil waters off the beautiful town of Dunsborough, provide the perfect backdrop for travellers to regularly observe Humpback Whales, Southern Right Whales and the possibility of spotting the largest ever creature on earth, the Blue Whale, as they escort calves born in southward to Antarctica from October onwards.

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