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Look Up! Way Up! – “Hexacopter” soars high above killer whales to study their fitness

Whale researchers generally have some pretty lofty goals but the methodology being used to study the health of at-risk Killer Whales might have the highest standard of all – literally.

With Johnstone Strait being one of the most predictable and sheltered places to see Killer Whales, many of us seafarers on Northern Vancouver Island had a front row seat in seeing what was “up” with this research. A marine “hexacopter” was used, a drone with a camera mounted to it that soars 30m or more above the whales to obtain high quality video and photos that provide very valuable information about the whales’ fitness.

Ready for take-off: Olympus EPL2 camera  mounted to the  APH-22 marine hexacopter. Photo Hildering.

Ready for take-off: Olympus E-PL2 camera mounted to the APH-22 marine hexacopter. Photo Hildering.

Researchers Dr. Lance Barrett-Leonard, Head of the Cetacean Research Program at the Vancouver Aquarium, and Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach of United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were very generous in sharing information about their high-flying research with our community. (Are you getting tired of my clever puns referencing height yet?!)

Dr. Holly Fearnback releasing the helicopter. Dr.  John Durban centre and Dr.Lance Barrett Leonard on the right. Photo: Hildering.

Dr. Holly Fearnbach releasing the helicopter. Dr. John Durban centre and Dr.Lance Barrett Leonard on the right. Photo: Hildering.

Photo by Suzanne Burns showing how benign this method of study is - the research boat is more than 100m away and the hexacopter with camera is 30 m or move above the whales.

Photo by Suzanne Burns showing how benign this method of study is – the research boat is +/- 100m away and the hexacopter with camera is 30m or move above the whales.

All Killer Whales in BC are all at risk (Threatened or Endangered) and by getting the images from on-high, it is possible to better determine if the whales are thin and even if they are pregnant. This provides vital data such as being able to know if pregnancies did not go to term and how much the fitness of “Resident” Killer Whales depreciates in years of low Chinook salmon abundance. “Resident” Killer Whales are inshore fish-eating populations culturally programmed to be “Chinook-aholics” and their survival has been proven to be directly correlated to the abundance of Chinook salmon.

Here are some examples of the data obtained via hexacopter, revealing good news and bad news.

The bad news first  . . .

When Killer Whales are in dire condition and lose too much fat, this manifests as “peanut head”, sunken areas near the eye patches. I see this as the equivalent as sunken cheeks in the gaunt faces of underweight humans.

A Killer Whale with "peanut head" where the extreme loss of fat around the head causes sunken areas in the whale's head = the equivalent of gaunt cheeks in underweight humans. Photo taken during presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard,  Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove's Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Jackie HIldering

A Killer Whale with “peanut head” where the extreme loss of fat around the head causes sunken areas in the whale’s head.  This is a photo of a slide from the presentation given by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Hildering.

The images obtained with the hexacopter revealed that “Northern Resident” Killer Whales A37 and I63 were in extremely poor condition and, in fact, the whales disappeared from their matrilines (families) shortly after the images were taken. “Resident” Killer Whales stay with their families their entire lives so absence from the matriline most often means death.

The cause of death cannot be determined but know that when fat stores are get used up, manmade fat-soluble persistent organic pollutants (such as brominated fire retardants, PCBs, dioxins, etc) are released and affect the whale’s immune system. The mammal-eating Killer Whale of BC are known to be the most contaminated animals on earth.

In the presentation the research team provided in Telegraph Cove, I was gutted by the images of “Plumper” (A37 of the A36s) and I63 which showed concave eye patches and a tadpole-like body shape. The image of Plumper was contrasted to a healthy mature male Killer Whale (see below). As explained by Dr. Durban, Killer Whales when faced with fat loss, put water into the blubber layer so that they remain stream-lined. Plumper had lost so much fat, that it appeared he had to keep his pectoral fins extended to remain buoyant.  Ugh.

Image taken from the hexacopter revealing A37's very poor condition. He disappeared about 10 days after this photo was taken. A37 aka "Plumper" was one of the last 2 remaining whales in the A36  matriline of Northern "Resident" killer whales. He was 37 years old. The hexacopter study reveals that his brother A46 aka "Kaikash" is in good condition and he has been seen travelling with members of closely related matrilines. (Photo taken during the presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard,  Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove's Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Jackie Hildering)

Image taken from the hexacopter revealing A37’s very poor condition. He disappeared about 10 days after this photo was taken. A37 aka “Plumper” was one of the last 2 remaining whales in the A36 matriline of “Northern Resident” killer whales. He was 37 years old. The hexacopter study reveals that his brother A46 aka “Kaikash” is in good condition and he has been seen travelling with members of closely related matrilines. The above is a photo of a slide from the presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014.  Photo: Hildering.

 

Image taken from the hexacopter revealing I63's very poor condition. She disappeared from her matriline about a week after this photo was taken (I15 matriline of Northern "Resident" killer whales). She was 24 years old. Photo taken during the presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard,  Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove's Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Jackie HIldering

Image revealing I63’s very poor condition. She disappeared from her matriline about a week after this photo was taken (I15 matriline of “Northern Resident” killer whales). She was 24 years old. The above is a photo of a slide from the  presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Hildering

The good news . .  .

Data collected also revealed fat calves, robust nursing mothers, and pregnant females. Below, Dr. John Durban shares an image of 34-year-old “I4” of the I15 matriline of “Northern Residents” revealing that she is pregnant again.

Happy news! Photo taken from the hexacopter revealing reveals that I4 is pregnant. Photo taken during presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard,  Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove's Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Jackie HIldering

Happy news! Photo taken from the hexacopter revealing that I4 is pregnant again (she is the whale at the bottom of the image). With gestation being 17.5 months in killer whales and that, around the world killer whales give birth in the winter, I4 is likely about 1 year pregnant in this photo. Photo taken during presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Hildering.

I am in no way advocating for the unregulated use of drones for viewing whales. The researchers reported that the regulatory paperwork needed to get approval for this research weighed more than the hexacopter did and that they were glad that this was the case.

This research methodology, when applied correctly, is a wonderful example of how advances in technology can lead to advances in knowledge in a way that is benign to wildlife. The sky’s the limit in how we let this knowledge impact our day-to-day actions to improve the health of the marine environment for which Killer Whales serve as powerful sentinels.

How high will you go for the sake of Killer Whales and what they are revealing about the health of our life-sustaining oceans?

 

Video taken with the Olympus EPL2 camera  mounted to the  APH-22 marine hexacopter. Note that the whales would not hear what you are hearing in this video as the camera is 30m or more above the whales. If video does not load go to http://tinyurl.com/pjz3hpf

Video taken with the Olympus EPL2 camera mounted to the APH-22 marine hexacopter. Note that the whales would not hear what you are hearing in this video as the camera is 30m or more above the whales. If video does not load go to http://tinyurl.com/pjz3hpf

Research methodology allowed for an assessment of the fitness of 77 "Northern Resident" Killer Whales (inshore fish-eaters) and 7 "Bigg's" Killer Whales (mammal-eaters aka "Transients"). Here, mature male mammal-eating killer whale T060s is being photographed from on high.

The hexacopter research allowed for an assessment of the fitness of 77 “Northern Resident” Killer Whales (inshore fish-eaters) and 7 “Bigg’s” Killer Whales (mammal-eaters aka “Transients”) by the research team during 2 weeks in August. Here, mature male mammal-eating killer whale T060C is being photographed from on high. Photo: Hildering.

Photo by Laurie Sagle showing how high the hexacopter is above the whales.

Photo by Laurie Sagle showing how high the hexacopter is above the whales.

The research team: Dr. Holly Fearnback; Dr. Lance Barrett-Leonard; and Dr.  John Durban. Photo: Hildering.

The research team: Dr. Holly Fearnbach; Dr. Lance Barrett-Leonard; and Dr. John Durban. Photo: Hildering.

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3 Responses to “Look Up! Way Up! – “Hexacopter” soars high above killer whales to study their fitness”

  1. Gillian Butler

    wow I love the view! so amazing looking down on the whales. I only know them from the side, except once seeing them from a cliff in JS. Their saddle patch looks like a bird. I had to go to CBC (and ads) for the video. I want more!!!! OK now I have to actually read your blog!
    As ever, thank you sooooo much. xo

    Reply

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