From Black And White to Technicolor: Orca Whales Appear To Glow In The Dark When Viewed With An Infrared Camera

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This summer a group of scientists from the University of Washington’s Department of Applied Physics installed infrared cameras on the lighthouse at San Juan Island’s whale watch park, in order to obtain video of orcas passing by at night. The results are amazing to see – the whales appear in surreal color as they surface in unison, the familiar black and white bodies now appear in stunning technicolor:

This longer version shows more of the orcas as they pass by, and the “blows” (the whale’s breath as it exhales) are more easily seen:

To get this type of imaging scientists use equipment that can detect very small differences in temperature, employing technology that interprets a part of the light spectrum that our eyes can’t see; the infrared bandwidth (but we can feel infrared energy in the form of heat). The heat that is given off by animals is the same kind of energy as is given off by the sun, which we perceive as both heat and light. We just aren’t equipped to see the infrared part of the spectrum.

The following photo is from Infrared Detection of Marine Mammals:

IR thermograph of the fluke of a bottlenose dolphin. (SR-443)

IR thermograph of the fluke of a bottlenose dolphin. Warm areas (denoted by white and red) correspond to large blood vessels that traverse the width of the underside of the fluke. Note the comparatively cool peduncle area shown in blue. The colour bar at the bottom denotes 0.1 °C differences in surface temperature per gradation.

When conditions are right, the whales’ breath shows up clearly against the cooler air temperature, but because their bodies are so well insulated their skin is not a whole lot warmer than the surrounding water, and the process of showing the whales’ form with infrared is more challenging. To get around that problem, scientists have sensors that multiply the image (equivalent to night vision scopes), and they also have devices that emit infrared – much the way a TV remote works.

This technology is being applied to marine mammal censusing in many parts of the world, and there is hope that it will reduce ship strikes of whales at sea. It seems a benign and non-invasive way to explore the marine environment, a welcome change from the ever increasing reliance of loud sonar that is very harmful to whales and dolphins.

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