Gulf of Maine population research

The Gulf of Maine, off New England, is one of several major humpback whale feeding areas in the North Atlantic Ocean.  The Center studies this population across its feeding range, from the waters off Nantucket, Massachusetts to Nova Scotia, Canada. We are the only organization committed to surveying the entire Gulf of Maine population each year. Our work takes us to many near-shore and offshore areas each year, including Stellwagen Bank, the Great South Channel, Georges Bank, the Bay of Fundy and many other ridges, ledges and banks (see below). This wide spatial coverage is necessary to fully understand population size, structure and dynamics, as well to ascertain the effects of human activities.


Each year we attempt to determine the status of as many individual Gulf of Maine humpback whales as possible. We recognize individuals based on their unique fluke pigmentation and dorsal fin shape. High quality photographs are taken to confirm the identity of whales that we have previously cataloged, and to add new individuals as they are encountered. For each individual, we collect a wide range of data, including life history and behavior, samples for laboratory analysis and data for determining human impacts. Each year, we spend over 60 days at sea, collect over 23,000 images and identify over 500 individual humpback whales. We collaborate with a wide range of scientists and whalewatch based data collection programs in the Gulf of Maine and beyond to better understand this population. These data support our Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale Catalog and we also share photographs with the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog in order to facilitate ocean scale research.

By studying unique individuals, we continually build upon data that we have collected annually since the 1970s. One important humpback whale named “Salt” has been seen in the southwest Gulf of Maine every year since the mid-1970s, and many others have similarly long sighting histories. Our longitudinal studies have provided insight into a wide range of topics, such as vital rates, habitat use, contaminant loads, and entanglement in fishing gear. This work also contributes to the development of new techniques for understanding large whales, such as the ability to age living humpback whales (see Polanowski et al. 2014).

The Gulf of Maine is only one feeding area in the North Atlantic. Others are found off Eastern Canada (Gulf of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland and Labrador), Greenland, Iceland and Norway. Photo-identification research has shown that individuals maintain strong fidelity to the specific feeding area where they were brought by their mother during the first year of life. Much of what is known of population structure in the North Atlantic comes from a systematic, ocean-scale study known as the YONAH project. Learn more about YONAH here.

Learn about our primary field research techniques or the details of our research results (see scientific publications). For more general information about humpback whales, look here.