Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (NOAA) are giving drones a completely new use: monitoring killer whale’s health in relation to the amount of salmon around them.

Adapted military drones are also being used in other studies by tracking wildlife activity all over the world. In Antarctica for example, these devices are being used to count the number of penguins, seals and stellar sea lions.

According to NOAA, the most recent estimate places the global population at a minimum of about 50,000 killer whales. Credit: NOAA

Photographs of killer whales have been recently released by NOAA and were taken from a distance of only 90 feet. According to Discovery News Report, these are the most detailed photos of the stunning creatures nursing their calf in the wild. This marks a new chapter in the investigation since whale calves have been photographed nursing only in captivity.

Several images were captured this year, but investigators were lucky enough to catch one photo of a recently born J Pod baby orca being nursed. Out of the three pods, this is believed to be one of the most experienced at keeping babies alive. According to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, it was spotted near the San Juan Islands late Saturday afternoon.

Another set of images showed how the whole family of whales help feed calves. Two adult females were captured sharing a salmon with a calf, but they didn’t do it themselves. They first gave the fish to the calf’s mother who then shared the meal with her baby.

Efforts to capture these images had been attempted using helicopters but, in order to not disturb the whales the distance between the camera and the whale was too big which impede them from getting detailed images. Drones, on the other hand, help researchers get closer.

In a recent podcast hosted by NOAA, marine mammal biologist John Durban said, “This is the first time we’ve seen this kind of behavior in this kind of clarity.”

The Southern Resident killer whales is an endangered species. Only 81 of them are found in the wild and they spend part of the year around the San Juan Island. To avoid extinction, this new technology will help scientists make periodic checkups on adult whales and their calves. Investigators want to check if the mother is getting enough food to keep them both healthy.

Duban added, “Long-term, we want to compare how whale health correlates with salmon.”

Investigators also want to analyze how different parameters like weather, temperature, location and the amount of fish in an area can influence whale population. Marine biologist will also use this study to discover more about these creatures such as their mating rituals, dietary requirements and rate of growth.

Images of five new calves that were born in the past 12 months were also shown, meaning a good sign for the endangered species. With this study, biologists believe this number can increase in the future.

Source: Seattle Times