Stories & Inspiration

Supporting whale conservation: Swoop’s happy humpback

In 2023, Swoop achieved its B Corp certification, a mark of our commitment to our environmental stewardship, contribution to communities and service to our customers. To celebrate this year’s B Corp Month in March 2024, we’re celebrating by getting involved in a citizen science project, and using the Swoop Conservation Fund to contribute to the health of the oceans we love.  

Whale watching in Antarctica

In February, Swoop’s inhouse photographer Burnham sailed to the Antarctic Peninsula onboard the L’Austral cruise ship. This is one of the best times in the Antarctic season for whale watching: by February whales have spent the entire summer growing fat on krill in the rich polar waters. They’re at their most relaxed and are often curious about visitors to their home, lazily swimming up to zodiacs of tourists and showing off their flukes as they dive below. 

zodiac cruising in Patagonia Bay in Antarctica
Patagonia Bay: A dramatic setting for whale watching

One such encounter took place in Patagonia Bay on Anvers Island, a wide inlet fringed with glaciers. While out on the water, a humpback whale casually approached one of the zodiacs and began to put on a show. 

Those that were nearest were so close that some of the travellers were able to capture the whale on their phones. Burnham was a little further away – 200 metres away to be exact. But he was armed with two crucial things: a telephoto lens and a working knowledge of how humpback whales behave. 

Zodiac next to Humpback whale in Antarctica
A close encounter

While the whale swam past the zodiacs sending spouts of salty breath into the air, Burnham waited until he knew the perfect shot was about to present itself. 

‘Look for the moment when a whale starts to arch its back,’ is the advice he always gives our travellers. ‘The moment you see that, you know the whale is about to dive. And a whale that’s starting to dive means a whale that’s about to show its tail flukes.’

Mariposa, the Swoop Antarctica whale,
Preparing to dive

A moment later, the whale lifted its flukes, let them hang for a second and then slid beneath the water. The encounter was over, but thanks to a careful eye and a quick hand, the moment was captured forever on camera. 

It’s almost impossible to get a sense of just how big a whale really is from a distance, but a humpback’s tail flukes can measure an enormous 18 feet across (around 6m). For scientists, that size is a gift: each fluke is like a giant canvas, covered with its own particular set of markings that are as individual to a whale as a fingerprint. 

The Happywhale database

In 2019, the Happywhale project was created to take advantage of these unique whale markings. It uses digital images of whale flukes to train an algorithm to recognise individual animals with a staggeringly high level of accuracy. After 15 years, it has now logged over 75,000 humpbacks, or around a third of the global population. The beauty of the system is that citizen scientists (also known as anyone on a whale watching trip with a camera) can contribute to the data. 

Mariposa, the Swoop Antarctica whale
Raising the tale

In that time, Happywhale has become an invaluable tool for whale researchers. In the north Pacific, almost every individual whale is known and named, allowing scientists to get new insights into whale behaviour and biology. In the Antarctic, Happywhale data collected by polar cruise passengers has helped lead to speed limits being applied to ships around the Antarctic Peninsula to reduce the chance of accidental ship strikes. It’s the epitome of citizen science in action. 

With this in mind, Burnham was eager to upload his flukes to the database. It’s something we do whenever someone at Swoop gets a good whale photo. Such is the power of the database that we always get to see where the whale has been before, and when it was last spotted. But this time he had a first. A humpback that had never been logged before! 

How do you name a whale?

Back in the office, we decided that we wanted to celebrate Burnham’s whale by giving it a name and supporting whale conservation in the process. Happywhale offers contributors the opportunity to name any whale on their database, but to ensure this is more than just a frivolous pursuit, it asks that all names are accompanied by a donation to its non-profit arm, the Whales of Guerrero, which works in community-led marine conservation in southwest Mexico. 

Swoop Antarctica Happy Whale
The HappyWhale record of our humpback sighting

This is where the Swoop Conservation Fund comes in. Our sustainability manager Elliot explained: ‘The Swoop Conservation Fund is so important because it allows us to help protect the vulnerable environments and species that we hold so dear. Having the ability to give back is so important to us as an organisation.’

But how do you find out what a whale’s name really is? Humpbacks are famous for their whalesong, but it’s hard to ask them a direct question. Instead, we canvassed the entire Swoop team to come up with a shortlist. After narrowing them down, we put the final choice to the public vote and asked our followers on social media to decide. 

Introducing Mariposa

The winning choice was Mariposa: the Spanish word for butterfly. The name was inspired by how the flukes were reminiscent of a butterfly’s wings, while giving a nod to the fact that Swoop has many team members based in Argentina and Chile. The whale was even spotted in Patagonia Bay!  

‘At Happywhale we’re very excited for Swoop’s engagement in citizen science,’ the founder of Happywhale Ted Cheeseman told us when we let him know about Mariposa. ‘This year in the Antarctic has been Happywhale’s best ever, with over 1200 humpback whales identified to date. We love bringing science closer to Antarctic travellers and with this rich dataset we hope to be able to detect how environmental change affects Antarctic whales as we have now been able to do in the North Pacific Ocean.’

Mariposa, the Swoop Antarctica whale
Mariposa’s perfect flukes

Happywhale is incredible because it combines tourism with science and those two things combined produce a transformative experience that connects travellers to nature, creating ambassadors for these far corners of the globe. And we need this collective action if we’re going to tackle some of the impacts of climate change.

This year’s Antarctic season is coming to an end, and somewhere off the Peninsula, Mariposa is turning its flippers north to begin the long winter migration to warmer waters. Now we’re looking forward to the next season, and hoping for an email to land in our inbox to say he or she had been spotted again. Did she swim north past Brazil? Or did he follow the Pacific route to the western Caribbean? Will one of our travellers even be the next to take the shot that tells us if Mariposa is a male or a female? Might it even be you? 

We’re very excited to be following Mariposa’s journey into the future. But we’re equally keen to remember that photographing this one whale is a sign that anyone can all get involved in conservation projects. 

‘Happywhale is incredible because it combines tourism with science, and those two things combined create that transformative experience that connects travellers to nature. By doing this, we can create ambassadors for these far corners of the globe,’ Elliot reminds us. ‘And we need this collective action if we’re going to tackle some of the impacts of a rapidly changing world.’


Did YOU photograph flukes on your Antarctic trip and want to adopt a whale? Find out how on the Happywhale website

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Paul Clammer

Guidebook Editor

Paul came to Swoop after spending nearly 20 years researching and writing guidebooks for Lonely Planet. On his most recent trip for Swoop, he fell in love with the epic landscapes and uncountable wildlife of South Georgia.