Scientists use drones to spot stranded Cook Inlet belugas

KENAI -- Federal scientists will begin using drones to monitor beluga whales in the Cook Inlet as part of an effort to restore the endangered animals.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will use the unmanned aircraft to gather more information on belugas that have stranded, The Peninsula Clarion reported. The Anchorage-based drone company, Alaska Aerial Media, will do the flying.

NOAA biologist Barbara Mahoney said the drones will provide details that are not available from a horizontal perspective, such as whether the animals are in a pool of water or partially submerged. The additional information could be crucial to determining a whales' chance of survival, she said.

"It would help us identify age class," Mahoney said. "It would help identify groups. Sometimes they're all in one group and other times they're all spread out. And it provides us their location."

The pilots would have to drive out fairly close to where the whales are stranded and then launch the drone. Flying the manually operated drones to a remote site would be difficult, so drone operations are being limited to the Turnagain and Knik arms.

Scientists tested the drones in August on a pair of stranded belugas on a mudflat in the Turnagain Arm. Mahoney said the drone produced quality images, which helps researchers identity particular whales and be able to monitor how the animals are doing.

When shooting pictures from an airplane, weather conditions in the Cook Inlet can impact the clarity of the images.

"I think (the drones) do much better, picture-wise, for sure, in strong winds," Mahoney said. "We had gusts of 40 miles per hour, and the pictures were great."

NOAA works with veterinarians, academic institutions, the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network and various other agencies in their efforts to restore the Cook Inlet beluga population, which declined in the 1990s. There are now around 340 belugas in the area.