Drones Offer Closer Look |in Marine Life Study

     (CN) — Federal researchers presented images from drones used in their study of whales and dolphins around the Hawaiian Islands, demonstrating how the technology can be useful for studies of marine life in areas prone to high winds and severe weather.
     Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spoke with reporters Thursday after returning from a 30-day search around the islands for clues about how to sustain healthy populations of the marine mammals.
     Using a hexacopter drone, the team was able to capture intimate photographs of the whales and dolphins in the region that allowed the researchers to gain a deeper understanding of the size and disposition of the local whale and dolphin populations.
     “This is the first time that we’ve used (drones) as part of our research here in the Pacific islands, and it’s also the first time it’s been used to estimate group sizes,” Erin Olsen, who led the expedition, told reporters. “We wanted a way of calibrating the observers.”
     The team departed on a large ship — opposed to the small survey boats typically used — due to severe weather around the islands, which made it difficult to observe without disturbing the mammals.
     Olsen credited the drones for enabling the team to capture better photographs of groups of whales, since they may have been disturbed by an approaching boat.
     The high vantage point of the drones also enabled the researchers to establish more accurate estimates of whale populations and observe some of their behavioral patterns.
     During the expedition, the researchers encountered killer whales — rarely seen around Hawaii — three separate times. They found one pod of orcas off the coast of Maui and a second pod near the Big Island, which they saw again a few days later.
     However, the team was unable to find the beaked whale, after detecting and tracking the calls of an unidentified species of the rare whale for several hours.
     Olsen explained that tracking whales and dolphins is important due to their roles in the overall ecosystem around the islands. If populations decrease, the local ocean food chain will be disrupted, which could impact the entire ecosystem.
     The team took tissue samples and attached satellite tags to some whales to monitor their movements, which is critical to researchers’ understanding of the mammal’s movement during weather events such as El Nino and the impacts of climate change.

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