Look Up! Way Up! – “Hexacopter” soars high above killer whales to study their fitness
[Update summer 2016 – research team is now applying this technology to Humpback Whales – both photogrammetry and collecting blow samples. See here for video of the research.]
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.
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?!)
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.
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.
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.
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?
For more information:
- Gallery of photos from this research
- Global News, December 1, 2016; “Drones helping humpback whale research“
- Chek News; December 3, 2016; “Vancouver Aquarium using drones to conduct research on humpback whales“
- CNN; October 16, 2014; “Drone shows life and death of killer whales”
- DFO webpage with the research of Dr. Peter Ross on contaminants in Killer Whales. Note that Dr. Ross is no longer with DFO as a result of what is essentially the disbanding of ocean contaminants research by the federal government; he is now head of the Ocean Pollution Research Program at the Vancouver Aquarium
- CBC News; September 22, 2014; Vancouver Aquarium uses hexacopter drone to monitor whale pods – Drones give biologists new insight into health of killer whales
- Ford, J.K.B., G.M. Ellis, P.F. Olesiuk, and K.C. Balcomb. 2009. Linking killer whale survival and prey abundance: food limitation in the oceans’ apex predator? Biol. Lett. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.0468
- Vancouver Sun; August 22, 2014; Hexacopter gives B.C. orca researchers a new view
- CTV News; August 2, 2014; Drone lets orca researchers monitor whales off B.C. coast