Robotic Drone Captures Incredible Footage of Killer Whales

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Using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the NOAA Fisheries and the Vancouver Aquarium have captured incredible footage of killer whales swimming and playing together. The robotic drone, called Mobly, flew over the Johnstone Strait earlier this year to document the behaviors of a population of killer whales, representing the first time a UAV has been put into the field to perform such a study.

The project looked at British Columbia killer whales, which are currently listed as vulnerable under the Canadian government’s Species at Risk Act. During the 13-day study, the drone flew 100 feet over the killer whales, snapping a total of 82 specimens.

The researchers then looked at these photographs to determine whether each specimen was receiving a sufficient amount of food. The group produced a short video, explaining some of their findings. In particular, they noted the difference in fat distribution between specimen A-37 and specimen A-47; they also explained how A-37’s pectoral fins were extended to compensate for a lack of fat and, therefore, the shift in buoyancy.

Within a few short days, the malnourished whale, A-37, disappeared and was never again seen swimming alongside his brother. According to John Durban of the NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, it’s very likely the whale passed away. Reportedly, however, A-37 was relatively old for a resident killer, so his demise was not unanticipated.

Lance Barrett-Lennard of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Research Program recently discussed some of the team’s findings, during a Sept. 23 blog post:

“It turns out when killer whales lose weight they replace much of the fat in their blubber layer with water in order to maintain a firm, streamlined shape. They don’t look thin from a side view until they are drastically malnourished and a large indent develops behind the blowhole – a condition researchers refer to as peanut head. When killer whales reach this point they rarely recover.”

According to Barrett-Lennard, the photos were so detailed that the team were able to distinguish individual whales based upon the presence of “… scars on their saddle patches.” They even detected a number of pear-shaped female whales, which suggests they were pregnant at the time the photos were obtained.

Over the course of the 13 days, the group saw whales playing, swimming and engaging in all kinds of social behaviors. They also noticed killer whales co-existing peacefully alongside dolphins, with members of both species traveling together.

In concluding, Lance and colleagues herald the UAV experiment as a remarkable success. “We are convinced now that Mobly—or one of his cousins—will be an invaluable part of our research program for years to come, as we focus on recovering resident killer whale populations,” he argued.

Last modified: October 19th, 2014 by James Fenner