Drone research uses photogrammetry & breathalyzer's to monitor killer whale health

Feb 15, 2017
Lindsay Marie S...
  • A remote-controlled hexacopter captured this image of two northern resident killer whales photographed from 100 feet. Scientists use the unmanned drone as a cost-effective, non-intrusive method for monitoring the health of whales. (NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium)
  • This photo shows the comparative body conditions of killer whales. The female at top appears skinny and in poor condition. The whale at bottom is pregnant, her body bulging aft of the rib cage.

Turning to drones for capturing stunning imagery and cinematography has become a hobby for some, a popular profession for others, and at times has morphed into a controversial issue - drones and wildlife do not always get along. However, over the past few years, new conservation techniques and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used to offer unparalleled scientific insight and a tool to study the marine environment like never before. Drones have allowed scientists to track coastal erosion, map coral reefs and even give whales a breathalyzer.

CBS has just published the latest installment of their “Climate Diaries” series, which follows a group of researchers chasing killer whales. Headlining the article as “Why researchers are hunting killer whales in the Antarctic,” CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips followed the National Geographic Explorer on an adventure through the pack ice near the Antarctic Circle.  

“And while nobody shouts “Thar she blows,” when whales are spotted, this time in open water, people do jump into small boats to chase them, just like in the old days. This hunt, though, isn’t about killing whales; it’s about saving them. It’s about giving them a health check, and the prognosis isn’t particularly good.”

Flying a small drone just over 100 feet from the whales, the team is able to capture a high quality of images. The high-resolution images, known as photogrammetry, allows the researchers to monitor and measure changes in each killer whale's growth and condition. This presents experts with data to see if the animals are growing and getting enough to eat - “which is a lot more powerful than just being able to monitor births and deaths,” says John Durban of NOAA's southwest fisheries science centre. He and NOAA researcher Holly Fearnbach are modern whale hunters who use the latest tools.

Using aerial technology as a cost-effective and non-intrusive method for monitoring the health of whales is relatively new and has been gaining speed the last few years. Last fall, Danielle Hall for Smithsonian published a piece titled, “How Drones in the Sky Unlock Secrets of the Sea.” Turning to drones has allowed scientists to track coastal erosion, map coral reefs and breathalyze whales. This new technique breathalyze’s whales by flying through the cloud of mist they produce when they breathe. It has been in use in the Pacific for the last few years - in 2014, Vancouver Aquarium killer whale experts teamed up with American researchers to monitor and record images of Northern Resident killer whales using a drone. The recently published CBS article states,“It’s early in the program and Durban and Fearnbach are just building up a database of what comes out of a whale’s blowhole. But if a whale is unwell, the theory is you’d effectively be able to smell it on their breath.”

Despite it being early in the program, these articles and findings do have a few things in common so far: a changing climate and a decline of killer whale health. Whether two years ago in the Johnstone Strait channel along the north east coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, or in the icy seas of the Antarctica of 2017 - these drones are giving biologists new insight into the health of killer whales, and it is not looking good.

 “You could see just following her, her whole body profile, you could see her ribs really clearly, so she’s lost all of the fat along her entire body,” - Fearnbach

Additional resources: 

CBC: Drone used to track endangered killer whales by Vancouver Aquarium

CBS: Why researchers are hunting killer whales in the Antarctic

Smithsonian Magazine: How Drones in the Sky Unlock Secrets of the Sea

CBC: Vancouver Aquarium uses hexacopter drone to monitor whale pods

Drones Capture Stunning Images Of Orca Pod

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