April 13: Drones on Duty

At Point Piedras Blancas on the California coast, researcher Wayne Perryman's annual cow/calf count is underway. Expecting their northbound rush to begin any day, he tells us: "This year we hope to use a small drone to collect vertical images to determine size and shape of moms and babies as they move up the central California Coastline." Read below photo to find out why!

Drone being launced by scientists who will use it to count migrating whales

Image: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute

Researchers are trying to figure out why the whales appear to be doing well. "We've seen really good reproductive levels the last four years—lots of calves."

A shifting environment may be the reason. Is warming changing the ocean ecosystem by extending how long the whales can feed up north? Watching gray whales helps scientists get a window into what's happening in that rapidly changing environment.

Mr. Perryman and fellow Southwest Fisheries Science Center researcher John Durban are pioneering the use of drones to track the whales. The team's small hexacopter has already captured amazing images of killer whales.

The hexacopter hovers at about 100 feet, compared with small planes that get pictures from about 750 feet. Best of all, whales don't even know it's there. The fantastic photos it captures show general health conditions as well as markings unique to individuals. Mr. Perryman also wants to use the drones, which can hover just a few feet over the ocean, to collect biological samples. Guided by the live video, the drone could follow the back of the whale and be right over the blowholes to capture the exhaled breath. Scientists could get DNA from the captured epithelial cells use it to identify individual whales, their gender, and many details about their health. Wayne Perryman and John Durban will photograph the gray whales in May. If they succeed in collecting biological samples, the researchers hope to learn more about the whales and the environment they rely on.