Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whales (GoMex Bryde’s whales), the only resident baleen whale in the Gulf, are among the most endangered baleen whales in the world. Scientists are now turning to new technologies to study them in their natural environment.
With an estimated abundance of only 33 animals, these whales typically are seen within a small area of the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. The reasons why this population has such a low abundance are unclear as we know little about these whales. We currently have limited information about their foraging ecology, habitat requirements and questions remain about their current distribution in U.S. and southern GoMex waters.
The US waters of the Gulf of Mexico are highly industrialized, and GoMex Bryde’s whales are exposed to threats from numerous human activities such as shipping, pollution, energy exploration and production, gear entanglement and potentially harmful levels of anthropogenic noise. Recently listed as ‘Endangered’ under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), protecting this population is dependent on a thorough understanding of their behavior and habitat, in order to develop sound management approaches that protect them and their environment.
GoMex Bryde’s whales can be difficult to study. When they surface, they can have faint blows, spend little time at the surface and show a significant portion of their body only when they are about to dive - known as a ‘high arch’. These behaviors make them difficult to observe in less than near ideal sea conditions. In general, they do not readily tolerate approaches by the scientific small boat used for biopsy sampling and tagging, both of which are key components of our research plans for this study.
NOAA has been using small-unmanned aerial systems (sUAS)—or drones—to study large whales, cetaceans and pinnipeds since 2011. Operating with specific authority granted by the Federal Aviation Administration and our Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) research permit, we were joined during leg one by NOAA certified sUAS pilots, Lisa Conger and Elizabeth Josephson from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. During the first leg of the survey, we are looking at the viability of using a vertical takeoff and landing camera platform to study this population. The primary objective is to gather high-resolution images from directly overhead while the animals are at or very near to the surface. Using these photos, scientists will be able to estimate morphological parameters (such as length, width, girth, etc.) and more carefully assess the overall body condition of individual animals. Combined with the other data collected, these body condition assessments may reveal important gaps in the required information needed for the management and protection of this population.
These initial deployments over select animals have been more successful than initially anticipated. Some bugs were resolved with the camera system and the team learned something valuable with every evolution. Integrating the use of sUAS on future projects will be a valuable tool that dovetails well other visual and acoustic data collection methods to provide a more complete ‘picture’ of this population.
*All photos were taken under NOAA research permit #14450-05 and 21938 issued by the NMFS Office of Protected Resources to the SEFSC to the Marine Mammal Program.
** Flying sUAS or ‘drones’ over marine mammals is an activity that may only occur with specific authority. Please do not harass the wildlife!