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Incorporating whale-watch photographs into a 47-year aerial photo-identification catalog for a better assessment of the population dynamics of southern right whales off Argentina

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Florencia O. Vilches, Victoria J. Rowntree, Mariano Sironi and Camila Munoz Moreda

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International Whaling Commission


A photographic catalog of 3,200 individually identified southern right whales has been built up on their calving ground at Península Valdés, Argentina, through annual aerial surveys since 1971. This long-term database is a unique resource for biological research, conservation and education, which sensitively records the population's dynamics. However, the database still represents a relatively small sample of whale life histories occurring in Valdés. A way to increase this sample size is to incorporate photographs taken during whale-watch tours in Puerto Pirámides, the hub of Argentina’s whale-watch industry. Unlike aerial survey photographs, boat-based photographs are taken almost daily during the seven months of the year when the whales are present. Recently, the operators contributed 460,000 photographs of whales taken between 2003 and 2016. Initial findings added 105 new individuals to the catalog (86 adults, 19 calves) and increased the number of sightings of 45 previously known individuals, some of which had not been seen for 16 years. New information about ages and mother-calf relationships was also found, as well as extended data about calving frequencies of known females. Further and continued analysis of the whale-watch photographs will greatly enrich our understanding of the biology, dynamics and ecology of this population. The resulting expanded database will help to improve conservation strategies and boost citizen science and community work in Valdés.

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