A special drone helps marine biologists monitor an endangered population of killer whales.
The waters surrounding Washington state’s San Juan Islands are home a population known as the Southern Resident killer whales. This population is very endangered, with only 81 members. But the good news is that five of those whales were born last year.
Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Vancouver Aquarium have begun monitoring this population with a remotely operated hexacopter—a special drone that photographs the whale families from above. The researchers want to know if the whales have enough to eat, especially as El Niño changes weather patterns and could decrease the number of salmon the whales will have to hunt.
The research technique of using photographs to gather data is called photogrammetry. “We have typically counted births and deaths to assess population status, but photogrammetry gives us a new tool to better assess the whales’ condition between years and to look for changes over the course of the year,” said NOAA’s Lynne Barre.
The hexacopter, which weighs just 4.5 pounds, can photograph the whales from a much closer distance without disturbing them. Before developing the hexacopter at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, researchers used helicopters, which had to be flown at a height of 750 to 1000 feet above the water to avoid bothering the animals. Compare that to the 100 to 120 feet that the hexacopter can work at and still go unnoticed.
The images capture some amazing moments between mother whales and their calfs, like the mothers nursing and nuzzling their young. The researchers can use the image to monitor the growth of the young whales, and some of the photos suggest that some of the female whales are pregnant, more good news for this small population.