The ability to recognize individual animals has substantially increased our knowledge of the biology and behaviour of many taxa. However, not all species lend themselves to this approach, either because of insufficient phenotypic variation or because tag attachment is not feasible. The use of genetic markers ('tags') represents a viable alternative to traditional methods of individual recognition, as they are permanent and exist in all individuals. We tested the use of genetic markers as the primary means of identifying individuals in a study of humpback whales in the North Atlantic Ocean. Analysis of six microsatellite loci among 3,060 skin samples collected throughout this ocean allowed the unequivocal identification of individuals. Analysis of 692 'recaptures', identified by their genotype, revealed individual local and migratory movements of up to 10,000 km, limited exchange among summer feeding grounds, and mixing in winter breeding areas, and also allowed the first estimates of animal abundance based solely on genotypic data. Our study demonstrates that genetic tagging is not only feasible, but generates data (for example, on sex) that can be valuable when interpreting the results of tagging experiments.