Kites, Cameras, and Whales
Post by Jake Levenson, IFAW Global Whale Program Officer, Headquarters Office
Assessing the health of whales is a tough task. After all, you can't just ask a whale to stick out it's tongue and say "ah." This means that figuring out the health of belugas and their relatives is literally a whale-sized task.
Many scientists rely on photo identification to track the health of individual whales. Using high-quality photographs, scientists can identify individual whales by looking for unique characteristics and body features on each individual whale. For example, the underside of every humpback whale's fluke (tail) has a unique pattern of black and white, white can be used to tell individual whales apart. Check out these pictures below. The first two are pictures of Frisbee, and the third is a picture of Pinch. Can you tell the difference?
Other whale species -- like the blue and minke whales -- have different shaped dorsal fins on their back. By looking at the notches and shapes in the fin we can identify one from the other. Other species, such as the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, have distinctive markings on their heads.
Photo ID can tell us a lot more than just who a whale is. If people all over the world are taking pictures of whales in different geographic areas, we could eventually discover new migration routes.
Photo ID can also tell us stories about each of the whales. Unfortunately, it's not always a good story. Photographs of whales at intervals in their lives can tell us if they've survived collisions with boat traffic, or if they've healed from an earlier entanglement.
The easiest way to cover large swaths of ocean is to photograph whales from above. An airplane is really the best way to do this. This is pretty impractical for us, since we're really out in the middle of nowhere. Since these Beluga's are close to shore -- as are the gray whales at my next stop in Sakhalin -- I hope to be able to use a camera suspended from a kite to get some useful images looking down at whales to do a rough health assessment. So far we've deployed the kite-cam at the Beluga site, but the wind hasn't cooperated. We can't seem to position the kite where we really need it to be. However we did work out a lot of kinks and take some pretty cool shots from the air that are useful in habitat monitoring.
Here are a few of our favorite photographs of the kite-camera, as well a couple photographs taken from the kite camera. Hope you enjoy them!
Finally, here's a photograph taken from the kite-cam of the inlet where we often see beluga whales. You can't see them here, but there were a bunch of belugas in the area, just out of the view at the top of this picture.