Aerial images document Southern Resident killer whale J17’s continued decline

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.

Aerial images of adult female Southern Resident killer whale “J17," displaying very poor body condition on May 6th 2019. Note the white eye patches that trace the outline of her skull due to a reduction in fat around the head. Her condition is contrasted to September 2018, when she was also very lean but had not yet developed such an obvious "peanut head", and to September 2015 when she was clearly pregnant (note width at mid body) and in peak recent condition. Images obtained by Holly Fearnbach  (  SR3)    and John Durban  (  NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center  )  using a remotely-piloted drone under NMFS Research Permit #19091.

Aerial images of adult female Southern Resident killer whale “J17," displaying very poor body condition on May 6th 2019. Note the white eye patches that trace the outline of her skull due to a reduction in fat around the head. Her condition is contrasted to September 2018, when she was also very lean but had not yet developed such an obvious "peanut head", and to September 2015 when she was clearly pregnant (note width at mid body) and in peak recent condition. Images obtained by Holly Fearnbach (SR3) and John Durban (NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center) using a remotely-piloted drone under NMFS Research Permit #19091.

5th year of gray whale health assessments

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!

Aerial image of a female/calf gray whale pair as they migrate past Piedras Blancas Lighthouse on the coast of Central California. Image taken from an unmanned octocopter >150ft above the whales, with flights over whales authorized by NMFS permit #19091.

Aerial image of a female/calf gray whale pair as they migrate past Piedras Blancas Lighthouse on the coast of Central California. Image taken from an unmanned octocopter >150ft above the whales, with flights over whales authorized by NMFS permit #19091.

Field update from Southern California

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.

Aerial images of two groups of coastal bottlenose dolphins off San Diego County. Images were taken with an unmanned hexacopter at >80ft altitude, with authorization under NMFS permit #19091.

Aerial images of two groups of coastal bottlenose dolphins off San Diego County. Images were taken with an unmanned hexacopter at >80ft altitude, with authorization under NMFS permit #19091.

Whale Health Assessment in the Antarctic

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.

Aerial photograph of a group of Type B2 killer whales in the coastal waters of the Antarctic Peninsula; note young calves swimming below their mothers. Images were collected from >30m (100ft) above the whales using a small unmanned hexacopter. Research conducted under NMFS Permit No. 19091 and Antarctic Conservation Act Permit ACA 2017-029.

Aerial photograph of a group of Type B2 killer whales in the coastal waters of the Antarctic Peninsula; note young calves swimming below their mothers. Images were collected from >30m (100ft) above the whales using a small unmanned hexacopter. Research conducted under NMFS Permit No. 19091 and Antarctic Conservation Act Permit ACA 2017-029.

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.

Aerial photograph of Type A killer whales carrying chunks of a recently killed minke whales, their preferred prey species. Images were collected from &gt;30m (100ft) above the whales using a small unmanned hexacopter. Research conducted under NMFS Permit No. 19091 and Antarctic Conservation Act Permit ACA 2017-029.

Aerial photograph of Type A killer whales carrying chunks of a recently killed minke whales, their preferred prey species. Images were collected from >30m (100ft) above the whales using a small unmanned hexacopter. Research conducted under NMFS Permit No. 19091 and Antarctic Conservation Act Permit ACA 2017-029.

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 &gt;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 &gt;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.