UAV Reveals Killer Whales in Striking Detail

Another image of I51 and her two offspring, this one taken in 2015. Comparing this image to the one taken the year before, one can see that the youngest calf (I144) has lost its gray mottling and grown considerably. It is now almost half the length of its mother and approaching the length of its older sibling (I129). These images show how scientists can track the growth of individual whales across time to monitor their health and condition. Taken under Fisheries and Oceans Canada research permit and Transport Canada flight authorization.

Another image of I51 and her two offspring, this one taken in 2015. Comparing this image to the one taken the year before, one can see that the youngest calf (I144) has lost its gray mottling and grown considerably. It is now almost half the length of its mother and approaching the length of its older sibling (I129). These images show how scientists can track the growth of individual whales across time to monitor their health and condition. Taken under Fisheries and Oceans Canada research permit and Transport Canada flight authorization.

One of the populations of killer whales that spends part of the year around the San Juan Islands north of Seattle is called the Southern Resident killer whales, and they’re very endangered. There are only 81 of them left in the wild. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that 81 is five more than there were last year. There was a baby boom among the Southern Residents recently, and for a population of this size, five new individuals is a very big deal.

In this video podcast we’ll look at several amazing photographs that give us a glimpse not only of some of the new calves, but also of the family lives of these social animals. The photos were taken with an unmanned aerial vehicle, and to help us understand the photos we have one of the scientists who took them On the Line with us today.

John Durban is a marine mammal biologist with NOAA Fisheries, and he recently got back from the research expedition—a collaboration between NOAA Fisheries and the Vancouver Aquarium—that yielded these incredible pictures. Durban explains that these photos, in addition to being beautiful, are also full of data that help scientists monitor the health and reproductive success of this very endangered group of whales.


Note: The researchers kept the UAV at least 90 feet above the whales at all times to avoid disturbing them. In addition, they were operating under research permits from NOAA Fisheries and flight authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration when in U.S. waters, and from Fisheries and Oceans Canada with flight authorization from Transport Canada when in Canadian waters.

Before using a UAV to view marine wildlife, please visit our guidelines page for information on how to do so responsibly.

If you are a researcher and you’re considering using a UAV to study protected marine species, please read this FAQ.

Learn more:

The first time scientists used a UAV to study killer whales was last summer. Hear John Durban describe the photos they got last year.

The Southern Resident killer whales are one of our Species in the Spotlight.

Here’s a special report on the Southern Residents: Ten Years of Research and Conservation.

This research was conducted by scientists from the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal and Turtle Division in partnership with scientists from the Vancouver Aquarium.

http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/podcasts/2015/10/uav_killer_whale.html