Dr. Fearnbach's update from the San Juan Islands, Week 1

SR3’s Dr. Holly Fearnbach and colleagues Drs. John Durban (NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center) and Lance Barrett-Lennard (Vancouver Aquarium) have had a successful start to their ongoing project to assess the health of the endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW).

This month they are using a small, unmanned hexacopter to collect high resolution aerial images of individual whales that are encountered around the San Juan Islands, Washington, and these images are being used to monitor growth and evaluate body condition.The team conducted 17 flights during the first week of effort and were able to successfully image all members of J pod (24 whales). J pod has been photographed in previous field efforts, allowing for a comparison of the size and condition of individuals across seasons and years. These data will enable an assessment of the relationship between inter-seasonal and annual changes in whale growth and body condition and the availability of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon.

When SRKWs aren’t in the area, the team hopes to build on previous efforts and collect aerial images of both mammal-eating Bigg’s (Transient) killer whales and humpback whales, as well as collect blow samples from humpback whales. These efforts are part of a comparative health assessments across several populations of large whales and killer whales.

(Left) Aerial image showing two Southern Resident killer whales (J16 and her adult daughter J36) taken with an unmanned hexacopter that was flown ~100ft above the whales under NMFS permit #19091. Images like this are analyzed to estimate size and evaluate body condition of individuals in this endangered population. (Right) Image of Holly Fearnbach and John Durban during flight operations.

(Left) Aerial image showing two Southern Resident killer whales (J16 and her adult daughter J36) taken with an unmanned hexacopter that was flown ~100ft above the whales under NMFS permit #19091. Images like this are analyzed to estimate size and evaluate body condition of individuals in this endangered population. (Right) Image of Holly Fearnbach and John Durban during flight operations.