Gale McCollough is a school teacher who lives near the small seaside town of Hancock, Maine. From that humble location, she recently made an extraordinary discovery.
Using the photo-sharing site Flickr and a personal history of studying whale photos, she identified a picture, taken in 2001 by tourist Freddy Johansen in Madagascar, of an Antarctic humpback known to scientists as number 1363. Two years earlier, researchers had spotted 1363, a female, swimming alongside another whale in Brazil. Brazil to Madagascar. That’s a distance of 6,000 miles, nearly double any documented migration by a humpback.
Since the late 1970s the Allied Whale research group at the College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor has built a catalogue of whale photos. McCollough scoured the catalogue and developed an expertise for identifying humpbacks based on their distinct shape, color and markings.
More recently McCollough searched for “humpback” on Flickr and unlocked an embarrassment of riches. She consolidated the pics into a group, and then in 2009, caught sight of number 1363 in the Johansen photo. The discovery led to her co-authoring a paper published earlier this month in Biology Letters, and earning her the esteemed title of citizen scientist. In the process, she changed our understanding of the humpback whale.