- A specialized drone has captured thousands of striking high-resolution images of killer whale populations in the United States.
- The research program is a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and Vancouver Aquarium.
- Drone images reveal that the endangered southern resident population of killer whales in the San Juan Islands is up by five individuals this year.
A specialized drone called the hexacopter has captured thousands of striking high-resolution images of endangered killer whale (Orcinus orca) populations in the United States. The images have revealed that some whales are pregnant, and some have nursing calves.
The research program is a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and Vancouver Aquarium.
“So what we’re trying to do with the hexacopter is simply to get a camera above the whales and measure their length, so we can monitor growth, and to look at their width profile so we can see how fat they are,” John Durban, a marine mammal biologist with NOAA Fisheries, said in a NOAA Fisheries podcast. “We do that by taking pictures and taking measurements from the pictures.”
The hexacopter has a camera and a pressure altimeter on-board. The team uses the altitude measurements to scale the photographs for measurements. And this results in very precise measurements, Durban said.
Typically, scientists have used counts of 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,” Lynne Barre, branch chief for protected resources in NOAA Fisheries’ Seattle office, said in a statement.
For example, the team found that the endangered southern resident population of killer whales in the San Juan Islands – currently with 81 members — is up by five individuals this year. In the late 1990s, this population had declined dramatically, falling from 97 individuals in 1996 to 78 in 2001.
“I think it is a sign that feeding has been okay for them and pretty good in the last few months,” Durban said in the podcast. “But you know, future monitoring is going to tell us whether those calves survive and grow to recruit to the adult population.”
“So I think the success of our study is being measured in longevity, whether we can keep this going to track growth, and changes in condition, changes in reproduction, and see if we can link it to not only salmon returns, but specific runs of salmon or times of the year when salmon are important. By doing that we can help to guide management actions to perhaps help, you know, enable these whales in lean times to make sure they get an adequate food supply,” he added.