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Challenge #3: Can an individual whale be identified based on its blowhole?


How can we improve our ability to identify an individual marine mammal?

Photo-ID forms the backbone of whale research all across the planet. One of the most common forms of photo-ID involves identifying a whale based upon the pattern on its fluke, or tail. However, there are some problems with identifying a whale based on this pattern.

  1. You need to be in the right place, behind the whale, to get the correct angle.
  2. Many species of whale infrequently lift their tails out of the water.
  3. Even within species that do frequently lift their tails out of the water, many individuals do not.

With the new drone technologies that are available to us we have a photo-ID platform that is fast, accurate and mobile; and that potentially could be conducted from shore so that researchers wouldn’t even need a boat or crew.

So what one feature do all whales have which are at some point exposed to the air? Their blowholes.

The challenge of this hack will be to determine if and how we can ID whales based on their blowholes.

Part of the challenge here is that, whilst a whale tail will generally always look the same, the blowhole changes (opening and closing when the animal exhales and inhales). Questions need to be answered such as:

  • Do all whales have a unique blowhole?
  • When is the best time during the blow to capture the unique shape of the blow hole for ID purposes (fully open)?
  • Does the image have to be taken from straight above the animal or can we capture the unique blowhole from a photo taken at an angle and if so what angle? (Typically snot collection happens from just behind the blow hole.
  • Is there existing photo recognition software out there that we can utilize for this photo ID process
  • Can the above mentioned software work in real time with video footage?

We will provide video footage showing whales exhaling, most images will be from above and just behind the whales but some will be from oblique angles.

Ocean Alliance
Data Sets and Tools
Overhead "SnotBot" Drone Video Footage
Footage collected under Ocean Alliance, NMFS permit # 18636.