Some ocean creatures are a challenge to study because they live in places that are difficult to get to or because they have complex life cycles. And to study unique creatures, sometimes scientists need to use unique tools. Our scientists use a range of advanced technologies for their research as they work to gather and analyze data and better understand the science behind healthy ecosystems and marine life.
It’s important to remember that all photos and technologies used to track and research marine animals are conducted under permits granted by NOAA Fisheries, and should not be attempted by the public.
Some of these technologies include:
NOAA Fisheries uses a number of technologies to observe ocean habitats and organisms from afar. The term "remote sensing" refers to the science of deriving information about the Earth's land and oceans from images acquired at a distance, like satellite imaging and aerial photography. Researchers use remotely sensed data captured by drones to investigate essential habitat and to determine the distribution and abundance of species in habitats that are difficult to access using traditional survey methods.
For example, scientists from NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center use special unmanned aerial vehicles (the size of a hubcap) to take pictures of leopard seals in Antarctica. The drone has six helicopter rotors, allowing it to take off vertically and hover motionlessly, and a high-resolution digital camera. From these photos, scientists can measure the length and width of individual animals and then generate estimates of their weight. By monitoring weight gain among the seals, scientists hope to better understand the energetics of the species and how they structure their ecological community through predation. Working with the animals remotely, under NOAA Fisheries permits, is better and safer for both the seals and the scientists. Unmanned aerial vehicles can also be a safer way to gather data from remote islands where surveys from manned flights are ineffective and dangerous due to low cloud cover. The technology makes it possible to observe whales without disturbing them.
Scientists from NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center are using saildrones to study fish like Alaskan pollock and protected species including whales and seals. A saildrone is an unoccupied autonomous sailing craft that houses a suite of sensors and instruments for collecting data from the environment. Saildrones can be used to study physical parameters (e.g., ocean temperature and salinity), record the abundance of fish in a given area, listen and detect the presence of whales, and track seal locations and foraging patterns. Saildrone technology opens up a whole new world of monitoring, recording, and collecting research information. The data gathered may be used to make management decisions about valuable commercial fisheries and conservation efforts for protected species.
Watch our video to learn more about saildrones:
Tiny microprocessors and sophisticated remote sensing systems now make it possible for scientists to explore the lives of marine animals and the open ocean from the perspective of individuals equipped with "smart tags." Tags provide researchers with information about migratory routes; diving, resting and swimming patterns; and internal physiological processes such as digestion.
These “smart tags” are especially useful in tracking:
For example, at our Northwest Fisheries Science Center, scientists use the Argos system to tag Southern Resident killer whales and figure out where they go when they leave Puget Sound. The scientists and their collaborators use satellite tags on orcas to gather location data that can reveal details about the winter migration of this endangered species and the extent of their coastal range.
The Argos system functions differently than the global positioning system (GPS) most people are familiar with. The transmitter on the whale emits a signal when the whale is at the surface and during the specific hours of the day when the transmitter is programmed to be on. The signal is received by System Argos receivers on NOAA's polar orbiting weather satellites. After a series of signals pass back and forth, algorithms are applied to the signal data to estimate the transmitter’s location. Signal contact for tagged killer whales typically lasts about a month, but can last more than 3 months.
Several kinds of underwater vehicles are used to study life in the ocean, including autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), manned submersibles, and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). ROVs are tethered to a surface vessel, whereas AUVs operate independently. AUVs receive commands from an operator-controlled computer as to where, when, and what they sample. They also carry equipment for sampling and surveying such as cameras, sonar, and depth sensors.
At NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the AUV team joined scientists with National Marine Sanctuaries for a collaborative research effort to better understand the location, distribution, status, and health of deep-sea coral and sponge ecosystems. Lucille, a SeaBED AUV used during these expeditions, can dive to 2,000 meters and work underwater for up to 6 hours while sending information back to scientists onboard their research vessel.
Lucille was designed to remain stable in the ocean's pitch and roll. Three carbon fiber propellers, originally designed for use in model airplanes, provide the thrust needed to propel Lucille down to the sea floor. The thousands of pictures Lucille takes can be blended into larger “photomosaics” to provide a more complete picture of the ocean floor.
Sound is the primary way many marine animals communicate and sense information. For NOAA Fisheries, acoustic sensing is a great way to detect and characterize physical and biological features of ocean areas. Using acoustics gives us enhanced and unique scientific data on:
Our science centers use sound in different ways to gather information on fish populations for fisheries management, and to detect marine mammals like turtles and whales during surveys. For example, at our Northwest Fisheries Science Center, echosounders are attached to the bottom of Pacific hake trawl ships to estimate the current and future abundance of hake. The assessments provide advice to fishery managers on future harvests. Scientists on the Center’s Fisheries Engineering and Acoustics Technologies Team also recently collaborated with a robotics group to use an echosounder combined with a solar-powered Wave Glider to survey fish populations.
NOAA Fisheries operates a wide assortment of hydrographic survey, oceanographic research, and fisheries survey vessels. These vessels are operated by NOAA's Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. The ships are run by a combination of NOAA commissioned officers and wage marine civilians. The ship's officers and crew provide mission support and assistance to scientists from various NOAA laboratories as well as the academic community.
NOAA Fisheries research vessels:
Genetic researchers at NOAA Fisheries preserve small tissue and blood samples from free-ranging marine turtles, marine mammals, and fishes to identify different species. They also use molecular methods to study the hormones that indicate reproductive status, and stable isotopes to determine the geographic origins of animals.
For example, NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla has one of the largest marine mammal and marine turtle sample collections in the world. This research sample collection has more than 140,000 tissue samples and 60,000 DNA samples, spanning more than 100 years.
Two state-of-the-art genetics facilities operate at the Center’s La Jolla and Santa Cruz laboratories.
Our Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, contains 38 research laboratories, including an experimental aquarium, specimen archives, electronic workshops, and a unique facility for testing new sampling technologies. Some of the state-of-the-art technologies include:
In Hawaii, our Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center is a 35-acre parcel on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. It houses exhibits, a dive center, laboratories, necropsy rooms, and technologies such as:
At our Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, the Environmental Sample Processor is an advanced biological sensing system that conducts automated collection and analysis of water samples as they occur in the field. This processor uses DNA technology to identify small organisms in plankton. It can remotely detect harmful algae and bacterial pathogens and send the results to shore in near-real time, thus providing early warning of developing harmful algal blooms or "red tides" before they contaminate shellfish.