British Columbia

Vancouver Aquarium uses hexacopter drone to monitor whale pods

The Vancouver Aquarium has used a drone to study killer whales from above for the first time. The images it captured have allowed biologists to detect pregnancies and measure the girth of the whales.

Drones give biologists new insight into health of killer whales

Drone films killer whales RAW

8 years ago
Duration 0:33
Vancouver Aquarium video shows cetaceans in Johnstone Strait

Vancouver Aquarium killer whale experts have teamed up with American researchers to monitor and record images of Northern Resident killer whales using a drone.

Hovering 30 metres above pods of orcas, the drone's camera allowed scientists to see the whales from a much different perspective than from a nearby vessel. Some whales were clearly pregnant, a condition not always visible by boat.

"This will help us understand how often they lose calves in the first few months of life. It's something we've always wanted to know. We know a lot about the calving rate, but we don't know how often stillborn or neonate or early childhood births occur," said Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, the Aquarium's senior marine mammal scientist.

Barrett-Lennard teamed up with U.S. researchers Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in San Diego.

Other whales were quite thin, their reduced girth evident from the air. Scientists could easily detect a condition known as "peanut head," where the white eye patches taper inward on underweight animals. One female, named I-63, was so thin she disappeared from the pod a week later and is presumed dead.

More than 60 flights were carried out over Johnstone Strait in August.

The APH-22 marine hexacopter captured the images of 77 Northern Resident killer whales and five transient killer whales.

Barrett-Lennard said most of the whales appeared to be in good condition as there was an ample supply of chinook salmon in the area to feed on.

Scientists plan to keep using the drone since it doesn't have any impact on the whales and the information it provided was so valuable.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?