Right whale identification relies on the distinct pattern, known as a callosity, that each whale displays like a blazon on the back of their head. These are rough skin patches — callouses. Whalers called them “bonnets.” Each whale is born with their callous-formation, which grows pitted and grooved like volcanic terrain over time. Callosities would not be visible were it not for the species of cyamids who colonize them, eating algae and the whale’s sloughing outer skin. Cyamids spend all phases of their life cycle on their cetacean hosts. The cyamids who live on North Atlantic right whales know no other species or environment. They can’t swim. They are passed from whale to whale – for instance, from a mother to calf, or while mating.
I see both an individually identified whale and its cyamid symbionts; when the whale data states “last seen” or “death year,” I experience the tensions between our capacity to care, to not care, to prefer nameable species, to shun the nameless or “uncharismatic” swarm.
These banners honor a colony of commensal animals who, coincidental to their lives on the whale, inadvertently “sign” the whale’s individuality to us human creatures.