NOAA drones on about killer whales

This past September the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) used unmanned aerial drones to track endangered killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State.  This unmanned drone took thousands of high-resolution photographs of the entire population of Southern Resident killer whales as they hunted, protected their calves and ate salmon.

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NOAA biologists using the drone to photograph Southern Resident killer whales in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Scientist from NOAA say that the use of unmanned drones has increased their ability to assess this populations overall health, individual physical condition and reproductive success.  The beautiful images collected this year show 5 new calves have been added to the population since drone trials in 2014.  This might not sound like a big deal but with an endangered population comprised of only 81 individuals five more is very important!  With this new application of technology and ability to photo document these wide ranging marine mammals, NOAA scientists are able to assess questions about how our changing climate might be influencing these whales.

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Aerial photo of a new calf nursing from an adult female. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

 

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Adult female consuming a salmon as her calve watches and learns.  This salmon was provided by another member of the family group while the mother cared for her new calf.  Credit: NOAA Fisheries 

An ongoing concern for the Southern Resident population is the El Nino climate pattern that has warmed sea surface temperatures throughout the Pacific Ocean.  Past El Nino events have negatively effected salmon populations which is the favored prey item of this population of whales.  Continued drone monitoring will help fill data gaps as to how climate patters directly and indirectly influence endangered killer whale populations.

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Female family members from the Northern Resident pod taken in 2014.  Credit: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium

Additional information regarding killer whales and NOAA drones can be found at…

http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/mediacenter/2015/10/21_10_orca_hexacopter_photogrammtery.html

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

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