Drones show new whale habits


NEWPORT — Scientists are discovering that gray whales do some surprising things, including performing headstands, swimming upside down, and playing their own version of “tag” between feeding episodes.

These newly documented behaviors have resulted from the use of drones, which allow researchers to observe the whales from above with minimal disturbance, according to a press release on the research, which is being led by Oregon State University scientists and reported in the journal Frontiers In Marine Science.

“We only see maybe 10 percent of a whale’s life while it is at the surface,” said Leigh Torres, a principal investigator with the Marine Mammal Institute at the Hatfield Marine Science Center and lead author on the study. “With the drone, we can observe for much longer periods and detect new behaviors, such as what we are calling ‘headstands,’ where the whale is poking its head and mouth into reefs, crevices and substrates to feed.

“Surprisingly, we also have recorded the whales swimming on their sides and ‘jaw-snapping’ at prey, or even swimming upside-down,” Torres said. “We are not sure why a whale would swim upside-down for three minutes, but one hypothesis is that it helps them focus better with their eyes. The whales also plow through the substrate scooping up mouthfuls of amphipods and other zooplankton prey. We can see them straining the mud out of their baleen at the surface.”

The drone footage also suggests to researchers that gray whales are more social on their feeding grounds than they previously believed.

“The paradigm is that baleen whales, including grays, are very compartmentalized and keep their feeding and breeding grounds separate,” Torres said. “We anticipated the whales to be generally solitary during the feeding months, but with the drones we were able to observe some brief but rather interesting social activities.”

“As the whales moved around their feeding grounds they would coordinate behaviors, including feeding efforts, and intentionally touch one another and bump up against other whales.”

The researchers compiled and tabulated all the different behaviors they observed from the drone video. A highlight video of the five “coolest gray whale behaviors” can also be viewed at: https://bit.ly/2wNPXFt.

Torres said the drones improve researchers’ ability to observe whale behavior significantly over boat-based observations because of the vertical angle looking through the water column and their ability to track them for longer periods of time – especially in clear water. They studied gray whale behavior at 53 sightings over a six-month period from both a boat and a drone, and the drones provided three times as much “observational capacity.”

“Even though we have a research permit to approach the whales with a drone, we found that we could record some great footage from a farther distance in order to get the context of the whale – like its habitat and other whales in the area,” Torres said.

The research team is in its third year of studying whales using drones.

“We’ve been focusing primarily on gray and blue whales, but you could apply the technology to almost any marine megafauna, including sharks, turtles, dolphins and other whales,” Torres said. “Most large marine animals move quickly and they are unpredictable. But with a drone, you can see down into the water column if it is clear enough and really get an insight into how they live their lives.”

— Oregon State University

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