NOAA Using Drones to Aid Marine Mammal Research

Federal researchers returning from a 30-day expedition to study whales and dolphins around the Hawaiian Islands said they are looking for clues to help sustain healthy populations of the marine mammals.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists told reporters Thursday that gathering data on the animals is often difficult, especially around the windward coasts of the Hawaiian Islands.

The researchers worked from a large ship, instead of using their normally small survey boats, and explored the coasts of the main Hawaiian Islands where wind conditions and severe weather make it difficult to navigate and remain at sea for extended periods of time.

The team also used a hexacopter drone to photograph the whales and dolphins, something they have never done before in this region.

Using drones allows researchers to get better images of groups of whales because they are not disturbed by the approaching boat, said NOAA’s Erin Oleson, who led the expedition.

The vantage point of the drone also allowed them to more accurately count the number of individuals in a pod, including mothers and calves that sometimes stay underwater.

Dr. Olsen said there are over 20 species of dolphins and whales around the Hawaiian archipelago.

The researchers took tissue samples and attached satellite tags to some whales to monitor their movements. Understanding the animals’ movements in conjunction with events like El Nino help inform the researchers’ understanding of the impacts of climate change and warmer water

temperatures.

Dr. Olsen said whales and dolphins are a critical part of the overall ecosystem around the islands. If populations decrease, as is the case with false killer whales, the oceans food chain becomes unbalanced and could impact the entire ecosystem.

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