Humpback Whale Naming

Humpback whales have been named in the Gulf of Maine for more than four decades.  The tradition started when a Dolphin Fleet whale watch captain named Aaron Avellar bestowed names on two humpbacks based on differences in their dorsal fins. “Salt” was named for the white scarring on her dorsal fin that looks like a layer of salt, while “Pepper” had a black dorsal fin without scarring.   Aaron’s family still has the unique honor of naming all of Salt’s calves, but the naming of all other whales is a long-standing, formal community process organized by the Center for Coastal Studies. 

The purpose of naming

Individual humpback whales are seasonal migrants that maintain strong fidelity to the specific feeding ground where they were first brought as a calf.  The Gulf of Maine is the southern-most major feeding ground in the North Atlantic.  From spring through fall, this population occupies waters from south of Nantucket, Massachusetts to Nova Scotia, Canada.  Some individuals have been seen on thousands of days across many locations since research started in the 1970s.  Giving them names helps us to communicate effectively about them over time across their wide range.  It facilitates research and information sharing, and also helps the public to understand these interesting animals as individuals with unique histories.

The naming process

Gulf of Maine humpback whale naming is organized and moderated by the Center for Coastal Studies.  The Whale Center of New England shared this important responsibility with CCS for many years.   A dedicated community of data contributors shares images of new whales, provides name suggestions and votes together on the name that these individuals will be known by in future years.  Before a whale is named, it must be confirmed to be new to the Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale Catalog.  CCS first undertakes an exhaustive process of collating documentation and rigorously matching potential new whales against the cataloged population.

Whale naming rules

Individuals are named for their unique traits, preferentially and almost always on the ventral sides of their flukes.  The goal is to choose a name inspired by specific patterns so that they are easily recognized on sight.  The following rules must also be followed:

  •     Names must be based on marks (focus on the largest, most prominent marks first)
  •     No human or trademarked names
  •     No names that denote gender (not always known at time of naming)
  •     No offensive terms
  •     No names already in use

Only a few names, mainly from the early days, do not follow these basic rules. 

There are other considerations as well.  Names have to be easily understood by the public, especially passengers on a whale watch boat.  So, we try to focus on those that are not be too long, don’t sound like other words and don’t cause confusion with other things in the marine environment.  We try not to choose words are very similar to existing names, even if they are not exact duplicates. Finally, we try to avoid names based on “reverse images” (those based on the background rather than the foreground) as they are typically hard to see in the field and often depend on the angle of view.

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