A crew of researchers is studying the world of ocean gentle giants in an incredibly novel way, and they have the photos to prove it.
Using non-invasive technologies like drones and suction-cup tags, scientists with the University of Hawaii at Mānoa Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP) are cluing into how climate change, human activities, and prey availability are impacting whales and dolphins by studying footage worthy of its own Netflix special.
Working with a variety of international government branches, MMRP hopes its research will help spur new mitigation and management strategies to help conserve the many mammals of our world’s waters starting with humpback whales. Though the bus-sized megafauna was delisted from the Endangered Species List two years ago, MMRP says sightings in Hawaiian and southeast Alaskan waters have dropped – and nobody knows why. Maui News reported just last month that researchers have observed a decline in the number of mother-calf pairs for the last three years while fewer male humpbacks have been recorded singing. As the publication notes, theories have ranged from humpback whales deciding to go farther offshore or to new places, or that the population of whales has simply reached their carrying capacity. Understanding which scenario is most likely, however, is exactly why MMRP has expanded its work beyond acoustics-oriented work and into that of drones.
“Marine mammals, they are charismatic animals and people really care about them,” said MMRP Director Lars Bejder in a statement. “Some of the studies that we are carrying out will allow us to provide information to conserve these animals. Very importantly, they are also sentinels of ecosystem health and this is really important because they can help raise concerns with the general public about concerns that we have about the ocean health today.”
Capturing cetacean behavior from above is nothing new. Just last week, a group of UK scientists used high-resolution satellite imagery to detect, count, and describe four whale species from space, allowing them to see key characteristics – like flippers and flukes – for the first time in such detail. Such technology could be a “game-changer” in finding and protecting whales in an effort to understand their many unseen behaviors. Meanwhile, Oregon State University researchers captured equally impressive (and somewhat NSFW) whale behaviors from above, including practicing headstands, threesomes, and impressive bouts of defecation.
In the meantime, we’re totally mesmerized by the breathtaking drone footage the team captured. Hey MMRP, can y’all take a cue from the E/V Nautilus and get a live feed going?