A drone has recently taken stunning photos of a killer whale nursing her calf, near the San Juan Islands, located north of Seattle.
Although the marine mammals have been photographed before while nursing in captivity, it’s highly unprecedented for such behavior to have been captured so vividly in the wild.
The photograph was taken using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), also known as a drone, which was piloted over the Southern Resident killer whale population, the smallest of four communities in the eastern North Pacific Ocean.
This small group consists of just 81 individuals, and ever since 2005 it has been protected under the Endangered Species Act, after having been listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The photograph which beautifully portrays two animals from this tiny community was released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The young killer whale calf is shown come close to its 20-year old mother from behind, in order to nurse.
“This is the first time we’ve seen this kind of behavior in this kind of clarity”, explained John Durban, NOAA Fisheries marine mammal biologist in a podcast.
Durban was actually a participant in the expedition during which the stunning picture was taken on late Saturday afternoon.
As he explained, researchers have previously tried to shoot photos using a helicopter. However, images captured this way didn’t have the desired quality and level of detail, so that is how biologists decided to use a drone instead.
The tiny aerial vehicle was always kept at distance of at least 90 feet above the surface of the water, so as not to perturb the marine mammals in any way.
Aside from its exquisite clarity, the photo is important also due to the fact that it provides further evidence that killer whales are currently experiencing a small boom in their population size.
Around 5 young calves have been spotted recently, which is a significant number given that the community was previously thought to be on the verge of extinction.
Also, another female Southern Resident killer whale has recently been photographed and it’s obvious from her wider shape that another calf will be born in the following months.
Surveying the area using drones is actually something that is performed periodically, for conservation purposes, and this method is preferable because it is less costly and intrusive compared to others.
Using hexacopters, researchers can closely monitor the group, and identify population trends, based on individual markings that every whale has. UAVs have actually been employed in Antarctica for similar purposes, in order to keep track of the number of sea lions, seals and penguins.
In addition, by taking certain measurements such as total length and width, scientists can determine how well-developed the marine mammals are and if they get their required nutrition.
This is especially important given the fact that Chinook salmon, which is the killer whales’ primary food source, is also considered an endangered species. In fact, one of the marine biologists’ long term goals is to test if there is a close correlation between whale health and the amount of fish in the area.
Image Source: NOAA