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The Vancouver Aquarium and NOAA teamed together for the first study of killer whales using an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), more commonly known as a drone.
The team – Lance Barrett-Lennard of the Vancouver Aquarium Marine mammal Research Program along with NOAA researchers John Durban, Holly Fernback, Warne Perryman and Don Leroi of Aerial Imaging Solutions used a custom-built hexacopter they dubbed Mobly.
In August, the team set out to monitor the health of whale populations from a bird’s-eye view.
Often times, killer whales look perfectly healthy from a side view even when they are malnourished. Once the whale becomes visibly malnourished and develop a large indent behind the blow-hole, it’s rare for them to recover. The researchers hoped their drone could help them identify whales that were thin before they developed the large indent, known as peanut head.
From our first flight over killer whales on August 14, Mobly proved his worth. Launched from the cabin roof of the Skana and ably piloted by John, it climbed quickly to 30 metres. Holly watched Mobly’s live video feed, directing John until the hexacopter was perfectly positioned over the whales. Wayne and Don ensured that Mobly was properly programmed and in good working order. My role was easy: find the whales, pilot the Skana and make sure that we kept to the terms of our extensive set of research and flight permits.
That first day was memorable not only for images of whales, but for the amount of high-fiving that took place. Mobly performed like a dream—steady, stable, and quiet. The images of the whales were stunning, and revealed right away that we weren’t going to have difficulty distinguishing robust and thin whales. We could readily identify individuals based on scratches and scars on theirs saddle patches, which were easier to see from above than I expected, and we could positively identify pregnant females. Most importantly, the whales didn’t react to Mobly visibly; not only did they not appear disturbed, they didn’t seem to notice him at all.
The images they captured are breathtaking.
Barrett-Lennard described what the team saw during their trip.
We saw fish chases, youngsters playing, a great deal of touching and social behaviour within family groups, killer whales and dolphins swimming together peacefully and much more. The bottom line is that the method worked wonderfully well. We are convinced now that Mobly—or one of his cousins—will be an invaluable part of our research program for years to come, as we focus on recovering resident killer whale populations by, among other things, ensuring they have enough to eat.