The guide is just one step in resolving conflicts between ships
and whales, but it seems like a worthwhile move. If people who
control the ships are willing to put scientific information into
action, they could avoid cumbersome regulations along with
unintended consequences that sometimes arise from political
“The purpose of this guide is to help mariners reduce their risk
of striking and killing, or seriously injuring a cetacean (whale,
dolphin or porpoise),” writes researcher Lance Barrett-Lennard in a
preface to the guide. “It includes descriptions of frequently
encountered whales and dolphins, locations along the coast where
cetacean densities are highest, and simple measures they can take
to greatly reduce their risk of striking a whale, dolphin or
“I have yet to meet a mariner who doesn’t feel terrible if his
or her ship hits a cetacean … so I know the motivation to reduce
strikes is there,” Lance continued. “The key is knowing how to do
it. To that end, I hope that bridge crews on vessels transiting
through B.C. coastal waters will use the information in this guide
to reduce the risk of hitting a whale on their watch.”
Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, could play an
increasing role in killer whale studies, according to Brad Hanson,
a researcher with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who has
been studying Puget Sound’s orcas for years.
Brad said a plan to use UAVs (he doesn’t like “drones”) has been
on the drawing board for several years. Unmanned aircraft can fly
over the whales far more cheaply than a full-size helicopter, which
has been used in the past. The small aircraft also may be able to
come in close for biological samples with less disturbance to the
whales than when operating from a research boat.
“I’ve been looking at this for a long time,” Brad told me. “We
have it in our (Endangered Species Act) permit to be able to use a
UAS (unmanned aircraft system).
Remote-controlled aircraft have been used by researchers to
study seals and penguins in the Arctic and to estimate their
populations with less disturbance than approaching the animals on
the ground. They’ve also been used to count birds in remote
In August, NOAA and Vancouver Aquarium researchers teamed up to
test the use of a remote-controlled hexacopter as they observed
Northern Resident killer whales in British Columbia. Mounted with a
high-resolution camera, the copter captured some amazing videos and
still pictures, including those on this page. See also
One can learn a lot from a good aerial view of a killer whale,
including general body condition, Brad told me. From a boat on the
water, it is often difficult to tell if an orca is healthy,
underweight or pregnant. From above, a whale’s girth is easier to
Researchers involved the British Columbia study — including John
Durban of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Lance
Barrett-Lennard of Vancouver Aquarium — identified several females
who seemed to be pregnant.
They also spotted two whales that seemed emaciated. Those
animals later went missing and are presumed dead, confirming that
they were in poor health. What is not evident from photos, however,
is the cause of the problem, Brad Hanson said. Were the whales
suffering from disease, injury or another problem that caused them
to lose weight, or was it simply a lack of food?
Aerial photos also can be used to measure the length of a whale
and, over time, determine the growth rate at various periods in its
Brad said the ultimate goal is to develop health assessments for
the Southern Residents, listed as “endangered” under the federal
Endangered Species Act. A lot of technical details need to be
worked out, he said, but the plan is to use unmanned aircraft to
collect breath and fecal samples from the whales.
A breath sample is the next best thing to a blood sample, Brad
told me, and fecal samples provide information about stress
hormones, potential pathogens and other things.
“If you tied that in with imaging, we might be able to build
individual health profiles and begin to understand when something
is going wrong,” Hanson said.
Currently, breath samples are taken by driving a boat alongside
the whales and holding out a pole with an apparatus on the end.
Fecal samples are taken by following the whales and sifting feces
from the water.
If a small helicopter flown from a boat some distance away can
be used, the result would be less intrusive than a boat coming near
In the study in British Columbia, the general goal was to keep
the UAV at least 100 feet above the whales. The study also included
some closer movements to test the reaction of the whales. No
obvious changes in behavior were noticed, Brad said.
One permit still is needed for Hanson to operate a UAV in
Washington state. The Federal Aviation Administration must issue a
certificate of authorization, or COA, which spells out limitations
of the flight to avoid other aircraft operating in the area.
The Canadian experiment received similar permits from Fisheries
and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada. The aircraft was an APH-22
marine hexacopter built for NOAA by Aerial Imaging Solutions.
Ironically, amateurs in the United States are allowed to operate
unmanned aircraft in some areas without permits. But flying around
wildlife could create unanticipated problems for the animals. And
anyone operating around endangered whales could be in violation of
other state and federal laws — such as the Endangered Species Act
or Marine Mammal Protection Act — if they fly below 1,000 feet.