October 21, 2015 4:09 pm
Updated: October 21, 2015 10:48 pm

Researchers use drones to monitor killer whales as El Niño threatens food source

WATCH: New technology provides an unprecedented look at the health of our resident killer whale population. As Linda Aylesworth reports, the Vancouver Aquarium hopes this information will help us better protect the orcas.


Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Vancouver Aquarium are using drone technology to monitor the health of endangered killer whales as the onset of a warmer climate pattern may threaten their food sources.

They are using a hexacopter, an unmanned aerial vehicle operated remotely, to take high-resolution photos that can be used to determine the general well-being of the whale population.

Last month, the hexacopter collected aerial photogrammetry images of all 81 Southern Resident killer whales in San Juan Islands in Washington State. The images of neighboring Northern Resident killer whales around Vancouver Island were also collected.

Photogrammetry is the science of making measurements from photographs.

Individual killer whales can be identified from the distinctive shape of their dorsal fin and saddle patch. Their individual growth and body condition from this year will be compared to previous photogrammetric assessments in 2008 and 2013 to see how the animals changed.

PHOTO GALLERY: Images recently collected by researchers using the hexacopter

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The 2008 and 2013 data was collected using helicopters.

Now, the researchers opt out  for a 4.5-pound hexacopter, with a roughly 30-inch wingspan and a special camera system. It is also small and quiet, allowing researchers to collect high-resolution images at a much lower altitude without disturbing the whales.

The imagery collected by the hexacopter last month suggests most whales are currently in what researchers call “robust condition” and that several appear to be pregnant. The images taken in 2008 and 2013 documented a decline in the overall body condition of the Southern Resident killer whales, as well as the apparent loss of calves by some pregnant females.

WATCH: Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard from the Vancouver Aquarium explains the benefits of using drone technology to monitor the local whale population.

Researchers also managed to take new photographs of the latest calf, L-122, just days after its birth, and its mother, L-91, just before and following birth. The team also captured vivid photographs of several calves nursing. The fate of the calves will shed light on the reproductive success rate of the whales.

The data collection becomes especially important as a warm El Niño climate pattern takes hold along the West Coast. NOAA says El Niño and warm ocean conditions have in the past led to declines in salmon, which Southern Resident killer whales rely on for survival.

Researchers will keep monitoring the whales to determine whether they face shortages of salmon prey at certain times of the year and prioritize salmon recovery actions.

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