San Juan Island whale health assessment - Part 2

Aerial image of an adult female and playful juvenile gray whale taken off Everett in northern Puget Sound, Washington State, using an unmanned octocopter that was flown >125ft above the whales, under NMFS permit #19091.

SR3’s Dr. Holly Fearnbach and colleagues Dr. John Durban (NOAA) and Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard (Coastal Ocean Research Institute) were able to collect data on whale health during their month on San Juan Island. This data contributes to ongoing studies of the nutritional health of these top consumers in coastal marine ecosystems off Antarctica, NE Pacific, and the NW Atlantic.

The team flew an unmanned octocopter to collect aerial images of five humpback whales, two minke whales, and three gray whales. These images will be analyzed to assess body condition to compare the health of whales across study sites (e.g., humpbacks and minkes in Antarctica vs. coastal NE Pacific) and years (fourth year in a row of humpback whale imaging) to infer key differences in nutritional status.


The gray whales were imaged as part of a collaborative study with John Calambokidis (Cascadia Research Collective) to assess the importance of Puget Sound as a feeding stopover for migrating gray whales.

Image of aerial operations using an unmanned octocopter onboard SR3’s research vessel Kuapio Kohola. Dr. Holly Fearnbach is shown catching an octocopter flown by Dr. John Durban (NOAA) after a successful flight over two gray whales off Everett, WA., during a collaborative project with Cascadia Research Collective (CRC). Image by John Calambokidis (CRC).  

Additionally, two blow samples were collected from the humpback whales to enable genetic identification of respiratory microbiome as part of a worldwide study to relate respiratory health to body condition.

Aerial image of the head of a humpback whale taken during a blow sampling event (note the white scarring on the blowhole) around the San Juan Islands, Washington State. The image was collected using an unmanned hexacopter under NMFS permit #19091.