Photo: A group of mammal eating Bigg's killer whales swim very close to shore off the coast of Northern Vancouver Island. Members of the T90s. T59s, T124A1 groups all came together during this encounter. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

An endangered population of killer whales in British Columbia has been photographed from a stunning aerial angle, giving local researchers a clear idea of the whales’ health, and giving the rest of us some beautiful images to fawn over.

The photos, taken by a 4.5 pound camera-equipped hexacopter, show two distinct populations of whales. The first group hails from the north end of Vancouver Island and is listed as threatened in Canada’s Species at Risk Act, while the southern population from the San Juan Islands is listed as endangered. Part of the reason is because Chinook salmon, which makes up 80 per cent of their diet, is also threatened.

All told, researchers captured high-resolution aerial images of all 81 southern resident killer whales, and nearly 80 northern residents. The whales appeared to be doing well, and the team noted several pregnancies.

“We’ve done the study in two good salmon years, which helps us establish a baseline ahead of potentially poor salmon years,” says Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, who heads the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Research Program, and conducted the study alongside partners from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The inconspicuously quiet drone allowed researchers to get a much closer look at the whales without disturbing them. The images help scientists assess the animals' body condition and health, a research method called photogrammetry. Here are a few of those photos.


Photogrammetry image of northern resident killer whales from the A30 matriline in pursuit of a salmon. Chinook salmon are a principal prey species for Northern Residents. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Photogrammetry image of eleven northern resident killer whales following a Pacific white-sided dolphin. The two species are frequently seen together in Johnstone Strait, British Columbia. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

A group of northern residents killer whales swim off Northern Vancouver Island. Images like this allow researchers to assess body condition of individual killer whales by using measurements of girth. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

A young Northern Resident killer whale approaches the surface with a salmon in its mouth. Resident killer whales often practice cooperative feeding; moments after this picture was taken, this fish was passed to the other whale in the frame. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Southern resident killer whale, J17 (top), believed to be pregnant, swimming with two juveniles. Pregnant females can be identified by their ‘pear-shaped’ appearance. This information coupled with subsequent observations of newborn calves will allow researcher to determine the percentage of pregnancies that produce surviving calves. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

A southern resident killer whale (J17) lifts her head straight out of the water in a behaviour known as ‘spy-hopping’. Aerial photos of J17 revealed that she is likely pregnant. This photo shows her plump midsection rising out of the water. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Photogrammetry image of a northern resident killer approaching a salmon. Because these whale rely so heavily on Chinook salmon, years with poor Chinook returns have been linked to higher mortality in resident killer whales. (Photo: Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)