The technique of surveying an area through the use of drone cameras has been amazingly effective at helping us to see the reality of certain situations. It has shed light on the sad plight of captive orca Lolita, shown us the horrific reality of what palm oil production has done to the rainforests, exposed the dismal state of California’s water reserves, and reminded us just how breathtakingly beautiful our planet is, and why it needs to be saved.
Drone footage has also been amazingly effective at capturing the secret lives of wild whales, as they traverse the oceans with their family members and even engage in the occasional interaction with humans.
New photographs have now been released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), showing members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) pod swimming in the waters off Washington State’s San Juan Islands. The SRKW population is currently classified as endangered, consisting of only 81 individual members. However, the population has experienced a much-needed baby boom in the past year, with five new births recorded.
The images were captured using an unmanned hexacopter – a specific type of drone that is capable of photographing entire whale families from a close distance.
The hexacopter weighs just 4.5 pounds, and can photograph whales from a much closer distance than a helicopter without disturbing them.
The research technique of using photographs such as these to gather data is called photogrammetry.
NOAA’s Lynne Barre explained, “We have typically counted births and deaths to assess population status, but photogrammetry gives us a new tool to better assess the whales’ condition between years and to look for changes over the course of the year.”
Some of the photos captured by researchers indicate that a number of the female whales may be pregnant. This bodes well for the future of the species!
Amazing, tender moments between mother whales and their young have also been captured by the hexacopter.
Researchers monitoring the SRKW population are eager to know whether the whales are in good health, and whether they will have enough to eat over the next year. The climate cycle of El Niño is set to change weather patterns in the whales’ area, and could decrease numbers of the salmon they traditionally eat. However, the baby boom experienced by the whales this year – in addition to the likely arrival of a few more calves in the months to come – has given them reason to be optimistic about this pod’s long-term survival.