Wayne Perryman, a biologist and fellow Southwest Fisheries Science Center, researcher John Durban are pioneering the use of drones to track baleen whales. The team’s small hexacopter has already captured amazing images of killer whales of the coast of Canada.
“After the first flight, when we brought the hexacopter and downloaded the images and I was blown away,” Durban said. “I didn’t realize how much better they would be than what we had before.”
The pictures are so good, that researchers can use the photos to spot general health conditions, pregnancy, and even markings unique to individuals.
The hexacopter hovers at about 100 feet and that offers dramatically better pictures than what researchers used to get from fixed wing aircraft. Those small planes typically took pictures from 750 feet.
Durban said the hexacopter is remarkably unobtrusive.
“We can fly the small hexacopter over them. Measure them. Take images of them. Without them even knowing we’re there. There’s not even a boat in the water,” Dunham said.
The pictures are a revelation but researcher Wayne Perryman wants to use the drones to collect biological samples.
It is not a new idea. Researchers have tried using small boats to get near swimming whales. Scientists would reach out with long poles. On the end of the extension was a collector that they held near the animal’s blowhole. The idea was to snag a sample when the whale exhales.
“They have a hell of a time doing it and its not very safe,” Perryman said. “Because sometimes the whales take offense to this sort of thing and we’ve had people, whales lash out at them and that can go poorly.”
The hexacopter changes the equation, according to Perryman, because the small craft can hover just a few feet over the ocean.
“So we can put the drone where we want it and just follow the back of the whale, because we’re getting live video, and just slide up its back,” Perryman said. “When those big nare’s open up and that breath comes out. We can be right over the top.”
Capture the blow and there is a wealth of information available to researchers.
“If we can sample the blow of a whale, we can capture the epithelial cells. So we can get DNA. We can tell who they are,” Perryman said. “We can tell what sex they are. If they’re stressed in a nutritive way. If they’re too skinny, we can look at hormone levels in that breath and get a scale of how skinny they really are.”
Perryman and Durban plan to photograph gray whales in May as the cetaceans move up the central California Coastline. If they succeed in collecting biological samples, the researchers hope to learn more about the whales and the environment they rely on.