SR3’s Dr. Holly Fearnbach and her colleagues from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and the Center for Whale Research just published a paper in Polar Biology on the movements and abundance of Type A killer whales around the Antarctic Peninsula. This is an important step in learning how these top predators are faring in this rapidly warming marine ecosystem. An increase in abundance of Type A killer whales was documented during the study, likely a response to changing ice conditions that increased access to new feeding areas, and also perhaps a result of increasing local abundance of their primary prey species, minke whales and elephant seals (see photo). The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming regions on the planet and studying the health and status of whale populations allows us to understand the health of the ecosystem that supports them. An understanding of these changes is required to manage human activities sustainably and conserve this relatively pristine environment. Much of this research was conducted from Lindblad Expeditions’ eco-tourism ships, with support from the Lindblad Expeditions – National Geographic Conservation Fund. Analysis of the photographic dataset was supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The manuscript can be read at https://rdcu.be/bKw9l
Drone-derived aerial images collected last week during a research collaboration between SR3 and NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center have documented a continued decline in body condition of an adult female Southern Resident killer whale, J17. More details are provided by NOAA's West Coast Regional Office at http://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/stories/2019/15_05152019-srkw-j17.html. These new data highlight the vulnerability of these endangered whales and the value of our non-invasive aerial photogrammetry to provide key information on whale health to support conservation actions.
SR3’s Dr. Holly Fearnbach and colleagues from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center have had a successful start to their gray whale health assessment project off Piedras Blancas Lighthouse near Big Sur, CA. This is the fifth year of this project and the team uses an unmanned octocopter to collect high resolution vertical images of gray whales as they migrate northwards along the coast of North America from breeding grounds off Mexico to productive feeding grounds in the Arctic. The aerial images will be analyzed to assess the body condition of females and the growth of their calves to understand trends in reproductive success. So far this year they have collected images of 22 female/calf pairs and 1 juvenile, adding to 228 pairs they have imaged since the start of the study. This is the final week of the project and then Holly is off to San Juan Island for a month-long aerial health assessment of the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales. More updates to come!
What a week! SR3’s Dr. Holly Fearnbach and her colleagues from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center completed two more dolphin surveys in the coastal waters off San Diego County. They were able to collect photo-identification images of and fly a small, unmanned hexacopter over 40 individual dolphins, bringing the count to over 100 individuals this year! Images collected on these surveys will be analyzed to assess the health and monitor the status of this local population of bottlenose dolphins. This study is supported by the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, SR3, NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and Pacific Life Foundation.
Dr. Holly Fearnbach, SR3’s Marine Mammal Research Director, just finished an extremely productive month of collaborative research on whale health around the Antarctic Peninsula. She was joined by Dr. John Durban and Trevor Joyce (NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center), Leigh Hickmott and Jessica Farrer (SR3) onboard Lindblad Expedition’s National Geographic Explorer to conduct research assessing how top predators (killer whales) and top consumers (humpback and minke whales) are impacted by the rapid warming of this marine ecosystem.
To extend long-term population monitoring (since 2004), they collected photo-identification data from 12 groups of killer whales comprising Antarctic Types A, B1 and B2. Laser measurements of body size were collected from killer (Type A and B2), humpback and Antarctic minke whales to infer trophic requirements. Using a small unmanned hexacopter, they were able to collect aerial images from five killer whale groups, comprising more than 80 Type B2s, eight Type B1s and six Type A killer whales. Photogrammetry measurements from these images will be used to monitor body condition to assess nutritional status and will add to data collected from 2016-2018 on the body size of the different types to understand the energetics underpinning their predatory impacts.
Unlike previous years, no emaciated whales were documented, but a large number of new calves and several pregnant females were photographed. Aerial images were also collected from 11 humpback whales, matched with 2 blow samples- these paired image/blow samples will be used to link the respiratory health of individual whales to their body condition. A big surprise of the season was that the team documented almost two dozen Antarctic blue whales in nearshore waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. Historical whaling reduced the Antarctic blue whale population to < 1% of its original size, but increased sightings in recent years is a great sign for the recovery of the population.
This study is supported by the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Conservation Fund (LEX-NG), NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, SR3 and Pew Charitable Trusts.
For the second year in a row, Dr. Fearnbach and her colleagues are evaluating cetaceans off the coast of San Diego.
SR3’s Dr. Holly Fearnbach and NOAA colleague Dr. John Durban are still in the field around the San Juan Islands, conducting a key health assessment of the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales. The team has been using an unmanned octocopter drone to non-invasively collect high-resolution aerial images that will be analyzed to quantify growth and body condition, to support recovery actions aimed at maintaining an adequate food supply. These aerial images can also be used to provide real-time updates on health and foraging success. Unfortunately, there continue to be a number of whales in the population that are in poor and declining body condition and we remain concerned about the condition of J pod in particular (see photos). The good news is that we have documented successful foraging from the air (see photo) and hope that if they are given space and can find sufficient food, the whales may be able to improve their condition. In the coming months, the images will be analyzed to add to a 10-year time series of whale growth and condition.
There is a high level of concern about the health of a young Southern Resident killer whale, J50, who has been documented to be in very poor body condition in recent months.
SR3's Marine Mammal Research Director, Dr. Holly Fearnbach, and her NOAA colleague Dr. John Durban, have succeeded in capturing overhead images of ailing Southern Resident killer whale youngster J50, during their emergency field effort to assess her condition.