Whale researchers launch a marine “hexacopter” to garner a bird’s-eye view of killer whales. The lightweight drone captures high-quality video allowing researchers to infer the fitness of the mammals without disturbing them.

Tech aids research

Whale researchers utilize drones to capture eye-in-the-sky footage of killer whales.

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 30 metres 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 the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were very generous in sharing information about their high-flying research with our community and gave a presentation on their work at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on Aug. 25.

All killer whales in B.C. are at risk (either 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.

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.

I was gut-punched upon seeing what the hexacopter revealed about the condition of Northern Resident killer whales Plumper (A37) and I63. Their condition was so dire that their eye patches were concave and their body shape was tadpole-like. The researchers shared the information that Plumper, a mature male, appeared to have to keep his pectoral fins extended to remain buoyant because he had lost so much body fat. Both Plumper and I63 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 their deaths cannot be determined, but know that when fat stores are get used up, man-made 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 whales of B.C. are known to be the most contaminated animals on earth.

The good news . . .

Data collected also revealed fat calves, robust nursing mothers, and pregnant females. Dr. John Durban shared 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?

Jackie Hildering is a marine educator, avid scuba diver, and humpback whale researcher who lives in Port McNeil. See www.themarinedetective.ca and www.mersociety.org for more detail.

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