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Submitted by matt.ellis on Tue, 06/27/2017 - 15:48
Podcast Transcript
Transcript: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Offers a New View of Killer Whales

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Rich Press: For the first time, scientists have used an unmanned aerial vehicle to study killer whales from above. The device they’re using is a remote-controlled hexacopter with a high resolution camera mounted in its belly, and the photos it produces are beautiful and full of detail. I’ve seen a million pictures of killer whales before, but I’ve never seen anything like these.

Now, when I looked at these photos for the first time, I thought they were awesome, but to be honest, the killer whales, they all looked pretty much the same to me. But then I spoke with John Durban, a biologist with NOAA Fisheries, and I’ll never look at killer whales the same way again.

Hi, may I speak to John Durban, please?

John Durban: This is John.

Rich Press: Hey, John. This is Rich Press calling from NOAA Fisheries.

John Durban: Hi, Rich. How are you?

Rich Press: Durban explained that, to get these photos, he and his colleagues teamed up with scientists from the Vancouver Aquarium. The animals they photographed are the northern resident killer whales in British Columbia, a population that’s listed as threatened under Canada's Species At Risk Act, and the trained pilots were operating under permits issued by the Canadian Government. Like the endangered southern resident killer whales that spend their summers near Seattle, the northern residents eat salmon, mainly Chinook salmon, and the salmon runs they rely on are smaller than they used to be. In fact, several Chinook runs are themselves endangered, and scientists are concerned that a lack of prey may be limiting the whale populations.

The main question scientists are trying to answer here is, are the whales getting enough to eat? To find out, they fly the hexacopter at an altitude of 100 feet, high enough that the whales don’t notice it but near enough to get photographs that are incredibly revealing. If, that is, you look at them with the eye of a scientist.

So, John, can we take a look at a couple of the photos?
John Durban: Sure.

Rich Press: Maybe you could tell me what you see in them.

John Durban: Yeah.

Rich Press: The first thing I’d like to do is talk about these two shots that you have, one of a skinny male and another one that’s more robust. Talk to me about these.

John Durban: They’re a striking comparison. Now, the whale I’m looking at on the left, the very skinny one, that is now what we’re used to seeing killer whales look like, and I think the reference point I’ll point you to is the eye patches, those elongated white areas right along the side of the head. Now, normally the whale gets fatter from the snout as it goes back. It’s kind of spindle-shaped. So the fat whale, you can see that some – an image of A-47, that’s identification number. You can see those eye patches just keep angling out. They get further apart as you go back down the whale. In great contrast, the skinny whale, A-37, you can see in the middle of that eye patch, there’s a big depression. They actually get narrower and close together, and that’s the side of the whale coming closer together as you get behind the cranium. If you look, you can see the skull of that whale quite effectively in the picture, so you can see the snout and you can see this ridge along the top of the snout, so really you can visualize where the skull of that whale is. It really doesn’t have any fat behind the skull that we’re used to seeing. It’s in incredibly poor condition.

The other thing you can see, those big pectoral fins that it’s extending along its side, it’s opening up those pectoral fins to give it some lift to help it come up to the surface to breathe because, if you don’t have much fat in your body, it’s hard to get that lift and float to the surface, so he actually had a hard time coming to the surface. So we already knew he’s in poor condition. We flew over him a couple of times and got these incredible images, and then while we were up there, he disappeared and he stopped swimming with his brother and has almost certainly passed away.

Rich Press: Really? While you were out there?

John Durban: Yeah, while we were out there. He was in such poor condition. So we got these images. He typically swims with his brother. You know, killer whales travel in their family groups their whole life, and he – we started seeing his brother without him during the last couple of weeks when we were there, so almost certainly these are some of the last images of him, and it really shows what a whale in terminally poor body condition looks like. It’s a skeleton with skin over it.

You know, A-47, the comparison whale’s only 29. He’s in the prime of his life there, and he’s fat. Everything looks great with him. He’s – that’s probably the fattest whale I’ve seen from the air. He looks in great shape, and you can notice there he’s just really fat and you can’t see the ribcage or the cranium. He’s covered in a thick fat blubber layer. He looks in great shape.
Rich Press: You mentioned that A-37, the skinny male, disappeared during the time that you were out there, and this is just an aside, but I’ve always wondered if I could find a marine mammal expert that I could speak to about, you know, how do whales think about death, I mean, if they do at all? But they’re smart animals, and unlike terrestrial animals, they kind of just drop out of the group.

John Durban: Yes, it’s tough to know what they think about it, so while we were up there, some of our colleagues that study acoustics of whales in that area, they have a network of hydrophones and they can hear their calls, and they have that first alert they thought that this guy – the night before he disappeared, they saw him and his brother going south and there was a lot of calling going on, he was really struggling, and when his brother came north the next morning, A-37 wasn’t with them. And they said at that point that A-46, his brother, was still calling a lot, so it’s interesting whether those calls were related to his brother, whether he was looking for him or whether he was telling others he was gone. We don’t know, but there’s certainly – I think there’s certainly a lot of anecdotes that they appreciate there’s a big event that’s gone on, particularly for animals that live in family groups like this. You know, they do family better than we do. They have to notice the absence of an animal that’s swum with them their whole life, and I think more than notice it, I think it can have a big effect on them.

Rich Press: So speaking of family groups, John, you sent me another picture with seven animals in it. It’s a horizontal shot.

John Durban: That’s right.

Rich Press: Is there anything interesting here? What can you tell me about these animals?

John Durban: Well, these are part of the I-15 matriline, so this is a family group, if you like, and what we’re seeing in this picture are animals of different ages traveling together. They spend their whole lives together. You can see that little gray animal in there was a calf that’s a young of the year. He was born sometime this winter. The one second from the top is a young animal that is probably two or three years old, maybe two years old, looking at his size. And then you’ve got adult females in there of various ages. That little guy in the middle really sets the picture well. He exposes beautifully because he’s gray. He’s gray and mothly because he’s young and his skin’s getting used to being in cold water, but it does show that even the smallest of animals, we’re able to get really precise measurements of length and girth, and what you can see there, he’s swimming next to his mother. He’s nice and fat, he’s nice and rotund. And actually she’s doing pretty well too. She doesn’t look particularly skinny so, you know, they’re doing well. She – despite the cost of lactation, you know, she’s producing milk that’s very costly to feed him, she’s doing well. She’s getting enough food, so that’s a good sign.

Rich Press: Now, with the female, could you tell if a female is pregnant from the air?

John Durban: Yes. Pregnant animals are the ones where their maximum girth is behind the ribcage. So what we have here is a beautiful image, five whales at the surface and another coming up from below, but there are three whales that are oriented really nicely there at the surface, and they really tell something interesting about comparative body condition. The whale at the top is an adult female, I-63 is the number I’ve identified it. She’s another very skinny whale. You can see that she’s very slender in the body, her head is a depression behind the head at the back end of the eye patch, much like A-37, the adult male. You can see that she’s skinny, you can see the shape of her skeleton. The whale in the middle is another adult female, but she’s very robust. We see none of those features. And then the whale at the very bottom, it’s great to see this because this is clearly a pregnant whale. You can clearly see that she has her maximum girth just behind the dorsal fin, just like us, you know, when we get pregnant. The belly of the mother starts to get big below the ribcage. That’s what we see here. This is an image I like. It does show us we’re able to detect these differences in body condition related to nutrition, but we can also detect differences related to pregnancy, and these are the key things we want to get at, being able to use shape to tell something about the condition of the animals and ultimately the status of the population.

Rich Press: Yeah. You know, from my perspective as a non-scientist, one reason these images are great examples of scientific photography is, in science, a lot of data wouldn’t be visible or interpretable by non-specialists, right?

John Durban: Yeah.

Rich Press: I might be able to tell she was pregnant, but I can understand exactly what you’re saying and I could see the data in the image as you talk about it.

John Durban: I like that, and you’re right. You know, you look at these images and anyone can become a scientist. You know, you can see the comparison between these whales, and I think that’s what’s so powerful. I mean, I don’t think science needs to be complicated to be powerful. Really what we’re doing is we’re using one technology but to answer a very simple question – can we learn something about these whales from their shape? And it’s simple, but I think we can learn a lot.

Rich Press: So just one last question, John. Now that you have a way to monitor the nutritional health of these killer whales, how does that help us to help the populations recover?

John Durban: Yeah, you know, currently we wait until after we’ve done a census in the summer of these populations, and then we know how many made it from the year before, but mortality is a pretty coarse measure of how well the population’s doing or how it’s responding to its environment because the problem’s already occurred if there is a problem. You know, if ten whales don’t show up, it means that something happened since the last year when you censused them. So I think what we need to try and facilitate some adaptive management is a more sensitive metrics of how the animals are doing. For the ones that are still alive, before they die, can we tell if they’re in poor condition. So what we’re trying to do is develop a tool, and particularly a cost-effective and non-invasive tool, to say, okay, this shows that these guys were fat and have become thin or they’re thinner than last year, we might want to do something about it. So I think it offers great potential in giving us kind of sensitive measure that we might be able to respond to if there was a management plan in place before whales die.

Rich Press: Great. Thank you so much, John. I’m sorry I went over time. Thanks, John.

That was John Durban, a biologist and expert on killer whale ecology with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California.

The research that Durban described was a joint effort between NOAA Fisheries and the Vancouver Aquarium, and it was conducted under permits from the Canadian government. Whales are very sensitive to what goes on around them, and the researchers are trained to recognize if their activities are disturbing the animals. In this case, they kept the hexacopter at least 100 feet above the whales at all times, though with other species of marine mammals, regulations require an altitude of 1000 or even 1500 feet. I guess my point is, if you're a hobbyist with a hexacopter, please respect the regulations, and marine mammals, by giving them plenty of space.

As always, you can get more information about this story at our website. That’s If you go there, you’ll be able to look at and download some of the photos we just talked about. Thanks for listening.

Join us again next time for more stories about ocean life and ocean science. I’m Rich Press, and you’re listening to On the Line.

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"On the Line" is a production of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Communications.