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Saving Whales by Photographing their Tails

Humpback whales have unique colours and markings on the underside of their tails, making them identifiable just like our fingerprints. Collecting photos of the tails, along with location information, allows us to collect data on things like population, migration & movements, relationships, age and site fidelity. Tonga, with the visiting whales and many photographers, provides a unique opportunity to collect valuable data which can be used to help us better protect the whales in the future. Since 2014, the TFC has been collecting these photos from visiting photographers to assist with research by creating a central, accessible database for anyone to use.

Flyer advertising Tongan Fluke Collective seeking photographs of whale tails

What is the Tongan Fluke Collective?

The Tongan population of humpback whales is making a slower recovery from 20th Century whaling compared to other populations in the Southern Hemisphere. Researchers know there is some interchange by whales that visit Tongan waters with other areas in the South Pacific, and are also hopeful of building up a better picture of habitat use on the Antarctic feeding grounds and throughout the Pacific Ocean.

The Tongan Fluke Collective (TFC) aims to utilize photographers visiting the Kingdom of Tonga and photographing humpback whales during the breeding and calving season. Non-lethal methods, like these photographs, provide valuable information as well as providing support to legitimate research that doesn’t harm whales (unlike some ‘research whaling’). The database of photos collected is freely available to researchers, and the photos are shared with a wide range of organisations.

The TFC also helps the local community of Tonga, by donating money to the local community. Since 2015, Scott Portelli has been donating $1 for every fluke shot taken. This money has gone to initiatives such as VEPA (Vava’u Environmental Protection Association). In 2017, Whales in the Wild joined the cause, matching Scott’s donations and doubling the amount going to groups working on the ground to protect the land & ocean of Tonga.

How can I get involved?

As a professional photographer you can assist by donating your whale fluke photos to the TFC. The photos can be taken above or below the water, as long as the image is clear.

Each fluke is different and will be added to a vast catalogue of fluke IDs from Tonga, the South Pacific, Australia and Antarctica. Photographers are given full credit for their images and will be updated if their fluke has had a match with other sightings.

Find out if you’re seeing an old friend again or welcoming a new individual from a well-known mum, by joining the TFC and assisting with knowledge-pooling on these beautiful whales.

To help us help the whales, join the Facebook group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/tonganflukecollective/  and send your photos to scott.portelli@gmail.com

Here’s some tips on what we look for to identify a whale (to help you shoot the perfect ID shot):

identification of a fluke photograph for the Tongan Fluke Collective
Useful Areas on the fluke for ID:

  • The trailing edge – this area has lots of individual nicks and bumps.
  • The pattern on the underside – some flukes appear all white or all black, but there are often small marks on them that can be used for ID purposes. 
  • The fluke tips – these can be pointed or rounded or may be incomplete. They may also show the marks left by predators’ teeth, like killer whales. 
  • The fluke notch – the shape of the notch between the two flukes can be used for identification purposes, especially when combined with other features.

Thanks to Libby Eyre, Zoologist and Marine Mammal expert, for putting these tips together.

Conservation and Gathering Data

All this information helps us learn more about the whales and with learning how to preserve the species.

Currently we provide Fluke ID photos to a number of organisations and are happy for any and all researchers to use our data free of charge. Check out or add to our current fluke collection on DropBox:

Tongan Fluke Collective Logo