Using drones for whale research – the Center for Whale Research and Exiter University team up to help orcas

Drone photo of the Southern Resident orcas.
Drone photo of the Southern Resident orcas.

Drones will be used to discover more about the social lives of killer whales as part of new research which could help protect the species.
The research team, funded by the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council, has so far focused on the vital social roles post-menopausal matriarchs have in the social killer whale community.
Now, The Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington and Exeter researchers want to collect new data about how whales interact. Using drones will give them a birds-eye view of social behavior, allowing them to see how whales support each other, and which whales in a group share food, intervene during conflict and babysit.

This information will allow experts to understand which social behavior helps whale reproductive success, to make more accurate predictions for their health and survival.

“By coupling drone work with the way we already collect data, taking photos and behavioral observations of the whales from the side, we will be able to look at the whales in a more holistic manner and ask questions that really get at some of the reproductive questions that have been stumping us and filling some data gaps that managers in charge of recovering these whales have asking for.” said Dr. Giles, Research Director at the Center for Whale Research.

They hope the public will support their work through a crowdfunding campaign launched by the University of Exeter this week. https://exeter.hubbub.net/p/whaleresearch
Dr Dan Franks, Reader in York’s Department of Biology, said: “The killer whales that we work on are majestic and iconic animals. But they are listed as endangered and it’s thought that the population could be extinct within the next century if conditions do not improve.”
“They are an extremely social animal and family members support and help each other. Drones will provide us with a birds-eye view of interactions – such as food sharing and babysitting – allowing us to study the impact of social behavior on their health, survival and reproduction.”

Southern Resident orcas J54 and mother, J28. Photo by Dave Ellifrit.
Southern Resident orcas J54 and mother, J28. Photo by Dave Ellifrit.

Professor Darren Croft, of the University of Exeter, said: “The killer whales we have been working with live on a knife edge and are at risk of extinction. The population has been listed as endangered since 2003 and two critical questions have been highlighted – what is causing decreased reproduction and increased mortality?”
“The major research priority for us is to collect new data that will allow us to record behavioural interactions. With drone information we can refine our analysis of population viability and future predictions for the health and survival of these amazing animals.”
Experts from the Universities of York, Exeter and the Center for Whale Research (CWR) in Washington State, USA, believe drone footage could revolutionize our understanding of whale behavior.

Researchers have so far analysed hundreds of hours of video of killer whale family groups, observing their relationships during fleeting glimpses as the whales surface for breath. They found female killer whales who survive after menopause pass on crucial information which helps their family members to find food during hard times.
Only humans and some whales continue to live for many years after giving birth to their last offspring. Such research provides possible insights into the reasons behind this, and is the subject of a new BBC Radio 4 documentary.
(Center for Whale Research media release.)

A humpback whale has stranded in West Seattle, volunteers may be needed.

(Future updates can be found on the International Dolphin & Whale Stranding Network, as well as the West Seattle Blog.)
UPDATE: “10:56 AM: Sad news from our crew on the beach. Jessie from Cascadia says the whale has died, probably within the past half-hour. What happens next, has yet to be decided; when the gray whale stranded and died in The Arroyos in 2010, it was eventually towed away for a necropsy.”
Please check with the West Seattle Blog for updates and to see if your help is needed.
From their blog:

FIRST REPORT, 7:58 AM: In just the past few minutes, we’ve received multiple messages about what people describe as a whale in trouble south of the Fauntleroy ferry dock.
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One texter says Washington State Ferries has contacted NOAA; before that, we advised the first person to contact Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which deals with more than seals, at 206-905-SEAL. Some have texted images including the photo and video above. On our way for a firsthand look.
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8:27 AM: We’ve just arrived at the dock, as has Robin Lindsey of Seal Sitters. This is definitely a humpback whale – Robin describes it as juvenile. It’s raised its fluke out of the water and has been heard trying to breathe, but it’s in very shallow water. Photo added. The tide is going out – we’re an hour past the highest tide of the day already. It can still be heard breathing, loud chugging sounds. We can’t recall a stranded whale in West Seattle since the gray whale that died in The Arroyos in 2010.
8:43 AM: Robin says cetacean experts are on the way. Since the tide is going out, volunteers will guard the beach and as the tide goes out, will use buckets and towels to keep the whale hydrated if needed. It’s definitely still alive – it spouted a few minutes ago and we could feel the spray.
9:27 AM: The whale is still breathing – we’ve added a short video clip atop this story. The fence along the ferry-dock walkway is lined with spectators. We’ve also talked with Jeff Hogan of Killer Whale Tales, a local whale researcher who we first met at the Arroyos whale stranding six years ago. He also told us that Cascadia and NOAA are on the way. If you come to this area, please remember that the beach south of the ferry dock is private. There might be a call for volunteers later, if needed to keep this massive animal – a juvenile, but still massive – hydrated, so check back. We’ll be here for the duration. A WSF employee tells us she first saw it around 6:40, almost an hour before we started getting tips.
9:43 AM: As the water gets shallower, more of the whale’s head is visible, and its fluke is at the surface. Haven’t heard it breathe for a while now, sorry to say.

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People are keeping the whale wet while waiting for NOAA and Cascadia to arrive.

10:08 AM: Hogan and another whale expert are out with the humpback now, pouring water on it to keep it hydrated. We still haven’t heard it breathe for a while.