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Species in the Spotlight: NOAA Fisheries Launches Aerial Technology to Help Stranded Cook Inlet Beluga Whales

View slideshow This image captured by the small UAS documents a beluga mom and her calf stranded during low tide in Turnagain Arm, Cook Inlet. In the image you can see that the calf was raising its head to breathe (note the blowhole on the smaller animal), the two animals were facing in opposite directions, and the belugas managed to find or create an area where water would pool (note the drier area at the top of the image). Credit: Alaska Aerial Media, LLC belugas_uas02.jpg belugas_uas03.jpg belugas_uas04.jpg belugas_uas05.jpg

The short video below highlights imagery captured during one of the UAS flights to the two belugas, which likely became stranded in the mudflats during low tide when the waters of Turnagain Arm were too shallow for them to swim away. Credit: Alaska Aerial Media, LLC.   

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NOAA Fisheries staff and their UAS contractor, Alaska Aerial Media, LLC, were legally authorized to operate the UAS in the vicinity of the stranded, endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales under an Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act permit issued to NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (permit # 18786). 

In addition to this permit, Alaska Aerial Media, LLC has all appropriate FAA authorizations allowing legal operation of a UAS for these specific NOAA Fisheries-supervised purposes.  Any operation of UAS near Cook Inlet beluga whales without appropriate permits is not authorized, and may result in violation of federal laws.

Visit the NOAA Fisheries UAS guidelines page for more information on how unmanned aerial systems are used to obtain unique views of wildlife, and for responsible use around marine mammals.

If you see a stranded whale, do not approach it. Immediately call NOAA Fisheries’ statewide 24-hour Stranding Hotline (877-925-7773) and report date, location of stranding, number of animals, and species. Visit the marine mammal stranding network page for more information about how to report strandings.

Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries. Taken by UAS under NOAA Fisheries research permit 18786 and FAA flight permits.

The call came in on a Thursday afternoon in August: a Cook Inlet beluga whale had been spotted, stranded on the mudflats south of Anchorage, Alaska.

Once a stranded beluga is reported to NOAA Fisheries, biologists spring into action to coordinate a response. When the animal is in a remote location or out on dangerous tidal flats, as in this case, part of the response typically involves chartering a helicopter or airplane to fly over the stranded animal to assess the situation before determining a course of action. This time, however, NOAA Fisheries biologists were ready to try a new tool: an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) with high-definition video capabilities.

Live strandings of beluga whales are not uncommon in upper Cook Inlet. Each year during the past 10 years, an average of two to three  mass stranding events (mass strandings involve at least two whales) of Cook Inlet belugas have been reported to NOAA Fisheries. These mass strandings often coincide with extreme tides. Stranded whales are usually spotted opportunistically from the Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm, or from small aircraft flying over Cook Inlet. A rapid response to marine mammal strandings is critical, not only to help the animals but also to obtain biological samples that can help assess threats facing this population.

NOAA Fisheries listed Cook Inlet belugas as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2008. The Cook Inlet beluga population has decreased by nearly 75 percent since 1979, when the population was estimated at approximately 1,300 whales, to an estimated 340 whales in 2014. Of the five Alaska beluga whale stocks, Cook Inlet belugas are the smallest and most isolated. Because of their precariousexistence, they were designated as one of eight NOAA Fisheries Species in the Spotlight, a concerted agency-wide effort to spotlight and save highly at-risk species.

As part of the Species in the Spotlight campaign, NOAA Fisheries will enhance its stranding response program for Cook Inlet beluga whales. Incorporating the use of new technology, such as small UAS with high-definition video imagery capabilities, is part of that effort.

“Fortunately, when the beluga was reported stranded in the mudflats along the Seward Highway, we had recently contracted Alaska Aerial Media to operate their UAS specifically to collect video imagery of stranded belugas” said NOAA Fisheries biologist Mandy Migura.

This beluga stranding event was the first test of the new technology for the stranding program. Migura indicated that, using the UAS imagery, marine mammal stranding responders were able to determine that the report of a single stranded beluga was in fact two stranded belugas, a mother-calf pair. Only the adult could be seen from the highway.

Using the UAS footage, NOAA Fisheries biologists could observe and document the belugas’ behaviors during the stranding event, while both the mother and calf were stuck in a small tide pool out in the mudflats. The UAS technology also provided a bird’s-eye view of the whales swimming freely when the tide came back.

The UAS technology has proven a valuable tool for stranding responses. The information collected not only allows for a more accurate count of stranded belugas, but also provides a closer look at their behavior during and immediately after a stranding event. With enough data, UAS imagery may provide insights as to why some belugas survive a live stranding event and others do not—insights that could help prevent extinction of this at-risk species.