Field update! Southern Resident Killer Whale Health Assessments

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.

 Aerial images of three adult females from J pod from September 2018 (J41, left, J16, center and J17, right). J41 is in robust condition and her width at mid-body indicates that she is pregnant, while J16 and J17 are in notably lean condition. Image by SR3 and NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, obtained using an unmanned octocopter that was flown >100ft above the whales under NMFS permit #19091.

Aerial images of three adult females from J pod from September 2018 (J41, left, J16, center and J17, right). J41 is in robust condition and her width at mid-body indicates that she is pregnant, while J16 and J17 are in notably lean condition. Image by SR3 and NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, obtained using an unmanned octocopter that was flown >100ft above the whales under NMFS permit #19091.

 Aerial image of J41, a pregnant Southern Resident killer whale, successfully foraging alongside her juvenile offspring J51 in September 2018. Image by SR3 and NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, obtained using an unmanned octocopter that was flown >100ft above the whales under NMFS permit #19091.

Aerial image of J41, a pregnant Southern Resident killer whale, successfully foraging alongside her juvenile offspring J51 in September 2018. Image by SR3 and NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, obtained using an unmanned octocopter that was flown >100ft above the whales under NMFS permit #19091.

Southern Resident Killer Whale Health Update

  CAPTION.  Aerial images of Southern Resident killer whale juvenile J50, taken in 2017 (left) and August 1st 2018 (right) for comparison. Note in the recent image she has lost body condition revealing a very thin profile, and noticeable loss of fat behind the head creating a “peanut head” appearance. Images obtained with an unmanned drone, piloted non-invasively >100ft above the whales under NMFS research permit #19091.

CAPTION. Aerial images of Southern Resident killer whale juvenile J50, taken in 2017 (left) and August 1st 2018 (right) for comparison. Note in the recent image she has lost body condition revealing a very thin profile, and noticeable loss of fat behind the head creating a “peanut head” appearance. Images obtained with an unmanned drone, piloted non-invasively >100ft above the whales under NMFS research permit #19091.

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. Building on collaborative field work with NOAA’s Cetacean Health and Life History Program and the Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute that has assessed J50’s condition since 2015 in her first year of life, these new images reveal her to be currently in a concerning state of poor body condition. We wanted to share this photo comparison with you while we await analyses from collaborative health assessments.

For more information about this collaborative study see https://swfsc.noaa.gov/news.aspx?ParentMenuId=147&id=23000