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Drones are revolutionizing how we study humpback whales

In our NewsHour Shares video of the day, this high-flying technology offers brand new insights into humpback whales and ocean science.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally to our "NewsHour" Shares, something of interest that caught our eye.

    Humpback whales have fascinated scientists for years.

    But as the "NewsHour"'s Julia Griffin reports, new, high-flying technology is helping researchers better understand the behavior of these elusive predators.

  • Julia Griffin:

    Gliding above Antarctica icebergs, this drone footage looks like something out of a nature documentary. But for marine ecologist Dave Johnston, the drone itself is a cutting edge tool for ocean science.

  • Dave Johnston:

    Drones are a technology that's really changing how we study a lot of things in Marine environments.

  • Julia Griffin:

    Johnston leads Duke University's Marine Robotics and Remote Sensing Lab. The group uses fixed-wing and multi-rotor drones to study animal behavior and populations from above.

    It's a safer, cheaper and more precise method than the helicopters and planes traditionally used for aerial surveys.

  • Dave Johnston:

    If we're out here and we're cruising along on our ship and we see a group of whales, we can launch the small boat, we can be there within minutes to be able to take advantage of that particular instance. That's totally revolutionary for our work.

  • Julia Griffin:

    The boats Johnston has been on lately have been floating near the Western Antarctic Peninsula. In the Southern Hemisphere summer, it's a great place for observing bubble net feeding, the unique way humpback whales feed on patches of krill.

    The gentle giants work together to surround the tiny crustaceans with an ever tightening spiral of bubbles. Their prey concentrated, the whales lunge upward with open mouths.

  • Dave Johnston:

    Imagine if your mouth went from your chin all the way to your belly button. That's pretty much the way it is for these whales. They engulf this very huge volume of water, squeeze the water out, and the baleen that's in their mouth keeps the krill inside, kind of like a filter.

  • Julia Griffin:

    The team's work marks the first time drones have been used to capture bubble net feeding for research purposes.

    The technology not only captures the feeding itself in ultra-H.D., but allows scientists to quantify the temperature and size of the humpback whales.

  • Dave Johnston:

    It hasn't been since commercial whaling that we have really been able to measure them and estimate their mass. So, drones are a really incredible, noninvasive way to collect data that's actually really important.

  • Julia Griffin:

    That data will help scientists understand the role of humpback whales in the Antarctic ecosystem as it reacts to climate change.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Julia Griffin.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What remarkable video.

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