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Drones Give Researchers Spectacular Footage In Whale Time

Oregon State University
Marine Mammal Institute, OSU

It’s common for kids to do headstands and blow bubbles. But whales? Marine researchers are seeing these creatures in a different light thanks to unmanned aerial systems, better known as drones. KLCC’s Brian Bull reports.

Oregon State University scientists have used drone-mounted cameras to capture the more curious antics of gray whales, which includes swimming upside down or snapping their jaws.

Leigh Torres is a principal investigator with OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute.

“These whales tend to do a lot of headstands," Torres tells KLCC.  "To get into crevices or into the sediments and feed that way. 

"Also, they seem to release strings of bubbles, so all of these behaviors are ways that they’re feeding that we didn’t quite know that they did before.”

WEB EXTRA: See OSU's drone footage of gray whales below!

Torres says drone footage gives researchers venues they can’t get while sitting in a boat. And it’s less intrusive.

“We keep the drone far enough away, that we’re pretty sure that the whales aren’t hearing it or really knowing it’s above them.

“Normally from our boats, we only are able to see the whales when they surface.  So that’s a very small percentage of their lives...10 percent or less," adds Torres. 

As whales spend the rest of the time underwater, researchers can observe them longer with the drone as long as the water clarity is decent.

Results of OSU’s drone-whale research is in the latest issue of Frontiers in Marine Science.

Copyright 2018, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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