Stunning Images of Wild Orcas Raise Concerns About Their Health

Scientists with NOAA Fisheries and the Vancouver Aquarium studying the Northern Resident killer whales have captured some stunning images of orca families swimming and playing, and have tracked two of the orcastragicallypassing away.

According to NOAA, this is the first time scientists have used a drone to study orcas from the air. In this case, they used a custom-built hexacopter dubbed Mobly that was fitted with a high-resolution camera to capture images of orcas in the Johnstone Strait off British Columbia, who are currently listed as threatened under Canada’s Species At Risk Act.

A group of northern resident killer whales, photographed by an unmanned aerial vehicle from 100 feet. Photo credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium.

Even though it was kept at a distance of 100 feet to avoid disturbing them, the camera captured detailed images that can help researchers better understand their health and behavior.

Killer whales travel in their family group for most of their lives. This family group includes a two-year-old calf (second from top), and a young-of-the-year (middle). Photo credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium.

While the images offer us another glimpse into the secret lives of orcas in the wild, the question researchers set out to answer was how well they’re doing and whether or not they’re getting enough food. In that respect, some of them aren’t doing so well.

Like their Southern Resident relatives, the Northern Residents rely on Chinook salmon, which is endangered. Even though there are new babies and pregnant females, researchers are worried a lack of prey may be limiting their populations.

Lance Barrett-Lennard, who heads the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Research Program explains why aerial views are so useful:

It turns out when killer whales lose weight they replace much of the fat in their blubber layer with water in order to maintain a firm, streamlined shape. They don’t look thin from a side view until they are drastically malnourished and a large indent develops behind the blowhole a condition researchers refer to as peanut head. When killer whales reach this point they rarely recover.

While NOAA was observing the whales, one of them who was known to be in very poor condition went under and never resurfaced. He is believed to have died. Scientists studying acoustics in the area observed his brother, A46, calling out extensively after he disappeared, although they’re not sure whether he was looking for him or letting others know he was gone.

The whale on the left is in very poor condition and is thought to have recently perished. The whale on the right is healthy and in the prime of his life. Photo credit: NOAA, Vancouver Aquarium.

According to Barrett-Lennard, the other who died, I63, had lost a newborn calf earlier in the year and left researchers wondering whether she was sick or injured.

John Durban, a biologist with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., explained that even though they do a summer census to see how many whales have died since the last year, using mortality is “a pretty coarse measure of how well the population is doing because the problem, if there is one, has already occurred.” He added that using drones can give scientists a better idea of trouble whales are facing that we can respond to before they die.

They now hope using drones will offer a non-invasive way to study wild orcas that’s more cost effective than other means, like using helicopters, and that a better understanding of their health will impact decisions when it comes to fisheries management to help ensure these orcas have enough to eat.

Photo credit: NOAA/Vancouver Aquarium


Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H4 years ago

Again, humans are causing harm to the wild. We have overfished the salmon that is the main meal of several types of wildlife. We need to stop human salmon fishing entirely.

Miriam O.

Thanks so much for sharing Alicia!

Catherine Robinson
Cat Robinson4 years ago

Gorgeous pic's from above, especially the little 2 year old !

Mandy H.
Mandy H4 years ago

Sad that they are suffering, but it's great that they're getting good data from the drones.

Tina C.
Tina F4 years ago

Fantastic and amazing photos..I love to see them play..Thank you Alicia for sharing

holly masih
.4 years ago

signed the petition.

Janet B.
Janet B4 years ago


ERIKA SOMLAI4 years ago

petition signed already

anja santens
anja santens4 years ago

beautifull creatures