Three friends in Trinity take on the daunting task of cataloguing massive visitors to the area
(Above) A couple of old friends frolic in the waters off Duntara. Photo by Kris Prince
"The minute you read the book and take it as gospel, is the minute it proves you wrong," says Shawna Prince. That's her philosophy about whale research, and the whales of the Bonavista Peninsula she counts among her "old friends."
Shawna and her husband Kris own and operate a whale-watching tour business out of Trinity, but their interested in the giant mammals goes as deep as the mighty whales' dives.
Over the years, they've amassed thousands of photographs of humpbacks, fin whales, sperm whales and orcas - as well as minkes, pilots, dolphins and porpoises. The photos were stored in suitcases and boxes, but have recently seen the light of day on the Internet, at www.whalenfld.org.
It's a website they began three years ago with their friend Reg Kempen's help. Their photos are also being adding to the Allied Whale North Atlantic Humpback catalogue (http://www.coa.edu/nahc.htm) housed at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Me.
But last summer's crop of photographs yielded a particularly rewarding find. A whale photographed by Kris Prince off Horsechops, Trinity Bay was last recorded off Puerto Rico - in 1974.
"It doesn't mean it hasn't been seen, but the record hasn't been kept," says Shawna, who has bachelor degrees in science and education, and a master's in environmental science.
"If these animals were able to talk, what would they be able tell you about the 30-something years of travelling they've done when nobody's really documented that?"
This particular whale, No. WWC#2007 was last photographed off Puerto Rico in March 1974, by David Mattila and Nathalie Ward. Kris snapped his picture of the whale on Aug. 12, 2009.
North Atlantic humpbacks migrate from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic every year in their quest for food and mates.
Each fall, Kempen sends off dozens of photos to the staff of Allied Whale, who keep the main catalogue of more than 6,000 North Atlantic humpbacks. It may be months before he hears back about positive matches.
When it happens, Shawna describes the feeling, "It's pretty cool. How would you explain it? It's like you had a long-lost friend and you heard where they were."
That's because Allied Whale keeps records dating back before 1976, when the first humpback whale catalogue was published. Sometimes the record is kept year after year. Other times, a whale might have a large gap in its recorded history.
"It doesn't matter to me whether it's one that hasn't been seen for two years - the sighting history might be in the Caribbean, off North Carolina, St-Pierre, Witless Bay, and then it's the first time it's seen in our area - but it's always a wonderful thing to get something that hasn't been photographed in 20 years or more," Kempen says.
Tale of the tail
Humpbacks have unique identifying features on the underside of their flukes, or tails. These splotches of white are similar to a person's fingerprint, and allow researchers and keen amateurs to recognize individual whales and record their movements and migrations.
Years of experience and hours of sorting digital pictures mean the Princes and Kempen know the whales that come back to the Bonavista Peninsula year after year.
"We have individuals that have come back the last three years on the same day in the same area, which makes you question - maybe they have their favourite restaurants and they show up at the same time every year, but we'll need a couple more years to figure that out for sure," says Shawna.
Some whales return every year. The Princes have named the more common ones. Cathryn is recognized by the C shape on her dorsal fin, and was named after Kempen's daughter, who was visiting Newfoundland when the whale first showed up. Bird is named for a seagull-shaped marking. Escaper has evidence of a killer whale attack on his fluke. But these names are only nicknames - in the world of scientific research, humpbacks are identified by number.
But it's not just humpback whales that keep the friends busy - sperm, fin and orca whales are all sighted around the Bonavista Peninsula. Kempen has collaborated with other researchers around the world, from Witless Bay to Bermuda to Aberdeen, Scotland.
"We've doubled our contacts this past year, and the more contacts you make, the better this thing is," says Kempen.
Their collaborations may one day turn into a global catalogue, similar to Allied Whale's humpback registry.
Wayne Ledwell of the Whale Release and Stranding Group - who's an expert on humpback whales - says the Princes and Kempen have their work cut out for them.
"They're on to something neat in that area," Ledwell said of the www.whalenfld.org site.
"To take on a big project is a huge undertaking, but they've selected a small area, and they're interested in what's coming back to that area. It's good for them, because they have something to tell the tourists, and it's good for us, too."
For example, Ledwell said, there's an accepted theory about how long humpback whales live, but when researchers get photographic proof of a whale living more than 35 years, it backs up the theory. The data, matched with Allied Whale's database, also fills in the blanks about the whales' migration, sexual maturation and behaviour.
But cataloging the 5,000 or so humpbacks alone that visit our waters would be a big job. And while other groups have their own records, only the Princes and Kempen have established an online catalogue.
"I'd love to expand it to all of Newfoundland, but give me five people and a budget…" jokes Kempen, who catalogues most of the photos.
"If you go on any trip you will hear something akin to machine gunfire, which is these cameras firing off heaven knows how many shots a second, and then you're given this huge pile of pictures, which you have to go through," he says.
Out of those, he might get 100 to 150 useable photos of an individual whale - photos of its dorsal fin, back, pectorals or flukes. Only the best photos make it to the website, but every snapshot helps positively identify a whale for their records.
The work is a labour of love.
"I get so much pleasure out of doing it - I just think it's a really wonderful thing to do," Kempen says.
"It ought to be part of Newfoundland's heritage, that people know what's happening around the coastline. … We're only too happy to send people information as much as we can."
The Princes cherish their time with the whales - the long-lost friends and their histories. And like the humpbacks, they migrate with the seasons. They spend the winter in Alberta where Shawna teaches high school science and Kris works as a welder, but they live for their months on the water.
"I just love the freedom. It just feels so free, the rush of the water, every day is a new day - it's a beautiful horizon, and I want to go see it more. It just never ends, there's always surprises for you," says Kris.
While they hope the business will be a success, Shawna explains they have other long-term dreams for the whale records they compile each summer. Apart from drawing on fishermen and others on the water for data, Shawna says down the road, the records might be crucial to keeping tabs on whale populations.
"We're in a time when there is a moratorium on whaling. … When or if that moratorium gets dropped, one of the concerns is that we won't have an idea of how many whales we had before, so we won't be able to say if things have changed."
Norway, Iceland and Japan all hunt whales, and the animals that visit Newfoundland's coast may migrate to the waters where whaling occurs.
"Whales don't have boundaries and they don't carry passports and they go wherever they want," says Shawna.
"It's a very sensitive time to make sure we have a handle on who's who and how many we have. With fin whales, they don't know where they migrate, where they calve, where they breed.
"If we have an idea (how many individuals) come back to Trinity Bay, maybe in the years to come we'll get tags on those whales and be able to say for sure how many we have.
"There's all kinds of good that could come of this type of work, but first we need to know who's who."