NOAA uses drone to study orcas

Two northern resident killer whales photographed by a remote-controlled hexacopter from 100 feet. The whale on the left is in very poor condition and is thought to have recently perished. The whale on the right is healthy and in the prime of his life. Scientists are using the hexacopter as a cost-effective and non-intrusive method for monitoring the health of killer whales. Photo credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium.

NOAA has teamed up with the Vancouver Aquarium to capture aerial images of a group of Northern Resident orcas in British Columbia with a UAV. This population is threatened and feeds on salmon in the area, which is in itself threatened. The scientists are using a hexacopter flying at 100 feet (33m) to get images of the whales which can be studied to determine whether they orcas are actually finding enough prey and also the numbers that are pregnant.

In an exhibit of playful behavior, two killer whales nuzzle head-to-head. Photo credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium.

The study is controlled and is taking place under permit to limit disturbance to the animals by the drone.

This photo offers an interesting study in comparative body condition of killer whales. The female at top appears skinny and in poor condition. The female in the middle appears healthy and well-nourished. The whale at bottom is pregnant, her body bulging aft of the rib cage. Photo credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium.