How Flickr can help save the whales

CAMDEN, Maine (CNN) -- Want to help save the humpback whale? Pick up a camera and start taking pictures, says Gale McCullough, a "fluke matcher" at Allied Whale, a research group.

McCullough is a citizen scientist -- a do-goodery term for volunteers who help collect data about the natural world -- who uses the photo-sharing site Flickr to catalog photos of whales. Not just any photos, though. She's specifically interested in the humpback's fluke, or the tail. On humpbacks, the underside of the fluke carries unique identifying information in the form of a splotchy black and white pattern. This can be used to tell one whale from another, much the way fingerprints work for humans.

McCullough spends time looking through these whale-tail photos and matching them to each other. Combining that data with dates, she and other scientists can track a particular whale's movement over time, giving each of these enormous marine mammals a story that otherwise would be unknown.

To learn more about the whales, however, more photos are needed.

"If you go whale watching, take a camera," she said in an interview on a boat off the coast of Maine, where she was speaking to a group of people attending the annual PopTech conference. "And then put it on Flickr. I'll find it."

The conclusions scientists draw from these amateur photos are not insignificant.

Last year, for example, McCullough -- a spry, gray-haired woman who wears tinted glasses that nearly cover her face and an orange jacket bright enough to make onlookers wish they had tinted lenses of their own -- did a casual Flickr search and noticed that a particular humpback whale, No. 1363 in the official whale catalog, had been spotted by a man who was on vacation in Madagascar. Two years before that photo was taken, the same whale was seen off the coast of Brazil, some 6,000 miles away.

That migration route was longer than any that had been recorded for a single humpback, according to a journal article that cited the finding.

"This observation is altogether unprecedented," Peter Stevick, a marine biologist at College of the Atlantic, and author of that article, told Wired Science. "There are only a few humpback whales that have been seen in more than one breeding ground before this, and they moved to relatively nearby areas -- eastern to western Australia, eastern to western Africa, for example."

"We have to rearrange the way we feel about the ocean now," McCullough said in 2010.

With more photos to comb through, more discoveries could be made, she said.

She encouraged anyone who goes on a whale-watching trip to try to take photographs of the whale's fluke. Wait much longer than you think you should to click the shutter, though, because the fluke becomes visible just before the whale dives back down into the ocean, she said.

If you upload the photos to a public photo-sharing website -- Flickr is just one of many -- and tag them with a date and location, then scientists may be able to use that photo to track the whale on its journeys through the ocean.

McCullough said photos of whales in South Africa and Madagascar are particularly needed.

Taking a photo of a whale can be the start of a lifelong learning experience, she said.

"Whales are a great way to take people down into the ocean."

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