NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium

Scientists hope this new monitoring technique will help save the killer whale population near Vancouver. 

Melissa Locker
August 10, 2015

How do you figure out if a killer whale is hungry? Scientists from N.O.A.A. Fisheries have teamed up with the Vancouver Aquarium to try and figure it out.

In the Pacific Northwest, the group of orcas that remains in inland or coastal waters eats a diet consisting mainly of Chinook salmon. Unfortunately, salmon populations are dwindling, which is believed to be the reason these orcas’ own numbers are declining. But until now scientists had no truly effective way of monitoring orcas out in the open ocean to evaluate accurately whether they are getting enough to eat.

Researchers are now turning to drones to help solve that problem. N.O.A.A. scientists have outfitted an “unmanned aerial vehicle” (which is science speak for a drone) with a high-resolution camera and sent it out over the Pacific to capture photographs of the orca population near Vancouver, Canada, in their natural habitat.

The resulting photos and videos are dazzling portraits of so-called killer whales in the wild, playing with each other as they swim through the cold waters of the Pacific. But photos fit for a coffee table book are just a happy side effect of the project. Scientists are using the photos to monitor the health of British Columbia’s Northern Resident killer whales, a species of whale that is considered threatened under Canada's Species At Risk Act. The researchers analyze the drone’s photos to more or less study the waistlines of the orcas to see if they are undernourished. They also use the images to monitor whale pregnancies and determine what percentage of pregnancies are carried to term.

The project is still underway, but the scientists are hoping that Vancouver’s Northern Resident whales are faring better than their neighbors to the south. Southern Resident killer whales, which populate the water near Seattle, are considered an endangered species. 

Read more about NOAA's collaboration with Vancouver Aquarium scientists here.

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