Hovering at more than 100 feet in the air, unmanned aerial vehicles have documented a wild population of orca whales for the first time. As part of a joint venture between the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration and the Vancouver Aquarium, drones are taking a critical look into the way wild killer whales live.
A family of killer whales, who will “travel in their family group for most of their lives.” The small orca in the middle is very young, and the other little whale toward the top is about two years old. (Photo: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium)
Even from such heights — distances typically further than third base is to home — scientists can tell if orcas are healthy based on whether they are fat or skinny. (Sketchy food supply for the northern resident whales, who feed primarily on salmon, is a known issue.)
The whale on the left is too skinny, and likely perished after the photo was taken. The whale on the right is larger and healthier. (Photo: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium)
Drones have certain advantages over more traditional, in-a-boat studying methods (or viewing whales through plexiglass). Keeping the small machines above a certain threshold ensures the watched whales aren’t disturbed. So-called “snot bots” can also swoop through the mist expelled from a whale’s blowhole, to collect hormones and other biological samples from the marine mammal’s mucus.
Two orcas nuzzle heads while playing. (Photo: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium)
Not only can the marine biologists spot playing behavior or tell who’s well-fed, they can use the images to tell if whales are expecting. “Pregnant animals are the ones where their maximum girth is behind the ribcage,” as NOAA researcher John Durban says in a recent podcast. “It does show us we’re able to detect these differences in body condition related to nutrition, but we can also detect differences related to pregnancy, and these are the key things we want to get at, being able to use shape to tell something about the condition of the animals and ultimately the status of the population.”