Posted on November 21, 2023
Small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) or “drones” are increasingly being used to study marine mammals from a different perspective. A field team from HDR and NAVFAC Atlantic recently encountered a group of five humpback whales during a vessel survey. They quickly launched a drone to capture some fantastic video footage and also collect measurements of the whales (such as total length), and assess the body condition and general health of the animals, including checking for any fishing gear entanglements.
In addition to this important data, drones can help scientists collect behavioral information they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see below the surface; for example, details on how these humpbacks cooperate to corral their prey using a feeding method called bubble netting.
In this drone video, two humpback whales work together to trap fish (in this case small Atlantic silversides) by blowing bubbles in a circle around the school of fish from below, and then simultaneously swimming up though the middle of the bubbles with their mouths open to capture a meal. This feeding behavior has been noted periodically in Virginia waters since 2012.