Updates from Antarctica

A few weeks ago SR3’s Dr. Holly Fearnbach, Marine Mammal Research Director, left for Antarctica aboard the expedition ship National Geographic Explorer. She, along with her collaborators Dr. John Durban (NOAA) and Leigh Hickmott (Open Ocean Consulting) are conducting their study “Drone-derived measures of whale health to diagnose marine ecosystem changes around the Antarctic Peninsula”. The goal of this study is to gather aerial photographs and whale blow samples to document the health of several whale species around the Antarctic Peninsula amidst an ever-changing ecosystem. The photographs will be used “in photogrammetry analyses to estimate the size, prey requirements and body condition of whales, which are top predators in this ecosystem” according to Dr. Fearnbach.  

Dr. Fearnbach reports that they have successfully flown 59 hexacopter drone flights to-date, collecting images of 35 individual Type A killer whales, 25 Type B2 killer whales, 25 humpback whales, one Antarctic minke whale, and the first aerial photogrammetry images of Arnoux’s beaked whales. Additionally, the team has used the hexacopter to collect 10 blow samples from humpback whales. These are being used to study respiratory microorganisms and emerging diseases. This project is part of a collaborative worldwide project on the health of whales to understand how they are coping with the challenges of climate change and other threats including entanglements in fishing gear and marine debris.

Aerial photographs of (left to right) Type A killer whales, Type B killer whales and humpback whales around the Antarctic Peninsula. Note an elephant seal in the mouth of a Type A killer whale. Images obtained from >30m (100ft) above the whales using a small unmanned hexacopter. These vertical images are being used to measure size and monitor body condition of these top predators, to assess nutritional health of the marine food web in this rapidly-changing ecosystem.

Aerial photographs of (left to right) Type A killer whales, Type B killer whales and humpback whales around the Antarctic Peninsula. Note an elephant seal in the mouth of a Type A killer whale. Images obtained from >30m (100ft) above the whales using a small unmanned hexacopter. These vertical images are being used to measure size and monitor body condition of these top predators, to assess nutritional health of the marine food web in this rapidly-changing ecosystem.

This project is supported by the Lindblad-National Geographic (LEX-NG) fund and research conducted under Permit No. 19091 authorized by U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service and Antarctic Conservation Act Permit ACA 2017-029 issued by the National Science Foundation.