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Drone Technology Helps NOAA Scientists Study Whales Off Hawaii

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How can scientists study whales and dolphins without disturbing the animals' natural behavior or facing extreme weather conditions themselves?

For the first time ever, a team of federal ecologists employed the use of drone technology during a 30-day expedition in Hawaii to help better study these marine animals. The use of drones contributes to a growing trend in research amid efforts to maintain healthy populations of whales and dolphins.

Difficulties In Research

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) admit that collecting data on whales and dolphins is often difficult, particularly around the windward coasts of the Hawaiian Islands.

During the 30-day expedition, NOAA researchers rode on a large ship — instead of typical small survey boats — and roamed around the Hawaiian coasts. In these areas, severe weather conditions and intense wind make it hard for explorers to navigate and remain at sea.

Benefits Of Using Drones

With these in mind, researchers used a hexacopter drone to capture images of the dolphins and whales — something they have never performed before in the region.

According to Erin Oleson, leader of the NOAA expedition, drones allow scientists to get better photographs of whale groups because the animals are not disturbed by approaching boats or ships.

"We wanted a way of calibrating the observers," says Oleson.

Oleson says there are about more than 20 species of whales and dolphins around Hawaii.

The drone's vantage point also provided them the opportunity to more accurately count the number of whale individuals in a pod, including calves and mothers that sometimes remain underwater.

Researchers say the number of calves helps them gauge the reproductive health of the whale.

Furthermore, the drone's perspective helps scientists create more accurate size estimates for whale individuals.

Whale Encounters

During the expedition, Oleson and colleagues had three different encounters with killer whales, which are rare to find in Hawaii.

The team found one killer whale off the coast of the Big Island and another one off the coast of Maui. Days after seeing the Big Island group, scientists came across the same group again.

One whale species they were hoping to see but did not was the beaked whale.

Through the use of underwater acoustic detection technology, researchers heard the calls of an unknown species of the elusive beaked whale. But even after tracking the sound for hours, scientists never saw the creatures.

Beaked whales are known to dive to extremely deep levels. These animals only come to the surface for air about once an hour, making them one of the most difficult to identify and study.

Impacts Of Climate Change

In addition to using drones to capture photographs, researchers collected tissue samples and attached satellite tags to several whales to monitor their movements.

Scientists say understanding these whales' movements in conjunction to El Niño can help inform them of impacts of warmer water temperatures and climate change.

Meanwhile, Oleson says dolphins and whales are crucial parts of the overall ecosystem around the Hawaiian archipelago.

If the animals' populations plummet, which had happened to false killer whales, the food chain in the ocean becomes unbalanced and can affect the entire ecosystem.

Photo: USFWS - Pacific Region | Flickr

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