By Kerry Banks
Using the latest advances in technology, scientists and conservationists are discovering new and important things about creatures in their habitats, be they in the ocean depths or high up in the wild blue yonder
Lance Barrett-Lennard recalls his first impression upon viewing drone-generated aerial photos of killer whales, mammals that he has been studying for 25 years. He was struck by their physical beauty and aura of familial tenderness. “When you look at them from above, you see they’re spending most of their time swimming so close together they could touch,” says the head of cetacean research at the Vancouver Aquarium. “This is how they maintain social bonds. It makes them look very fragile, in a way. When you see them maintaining that kind of proximity for reassurance and contact, they cease to be these great big, black-and-white things that can eat anything in the ocean and become these fragile animals we really do have to care for.”
These photos, collected off the coast of Vancouver Island by researchers from the Vancouver Aquarium and the San Diego-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) using a small, specialized drone called a hexacopter, are giving biologists a unique glimpse of how these apex predators (Orcinus orca) share food, how babies nurse and how the various members of a pod interact during a conflict. Because the hexacopter carries an altimeter, researchers can also gauge the length and width of the orcas down to the centimetre, making it possible to track their health from season to season and determine if they are getting enough food. That’s a vital consideration, as these killer whales, of the ecotype known as “residents,” are seriously threatened. As of January 2017, only 205 were left in the northern resident population and just 79 in the southern group.