Scientists use drones to monitor killer whales

killer whale orca
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Dave Govoni

Drones have been used in a variety of ways to observe and protect wildlife, from looking out for poachers in Africa to capturing video of giant dolphin pods on the move. Now, through a partnership between the Vancouver Aquarium and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), drones have been used to monitor protected Northern Resident killer whales and the endangered Southern Resident species for the first time.

The custom-built marine hexacopter is able to capture images of the killer whales without disturbing the animals because it can track them from an altitude of 100 ft (30 m), a distance out of the whale's earshot. Over 60 flights, the drone has collected 30,000 photographs and the researchers see great benefits in the new tool.

"The hexacopter gives us a more sensitive metric of the whales’ condition than we’ve previously had,” says Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, Senior Marine Mammal Scientist at Vancouver Aquarium. “Killer whales can buffer short-term lack of food by living on their blubber, and substituting water into their blubber layer, so they camouflage it when they are in poor condition. From above, we can observe and assess their girth, and know much earlier when they are in trouble."

Things that the photographs have revealed include pregnancies that wouldn't have been discovered otherwise, as well as evidence of unhealthy body conditions in certain whales. All of this information will go a long way in helping determine management strategies for the whale populations.

The researchers say this new technology will change how they do field research on whales and how they form conservation plans. You can watch video of some of the great shots the drones got below.

Scientists use drones to monitor killer whales
NOAA researchers are observing and taking photographs of endangered killer whale species with the technology.

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