The Cambrian

Migrating gray whales could number 1,000-plus

Victoria Pease has binoculars and long-distance lenses at her disposal as she scans the ocean for signs of migrating gray whales April 21 at Point Piedras Blancas.
Victoria Pease has binoculars and long-distance lenses at her disposal as she scans the ocean for signs of migrating gray whales April 21 at Point Piedras Blancas.

This could be the fifth springtime in a row that scientists will estimate that more than 1,000 pairs of gray whales will have swum past Point Piedras Blancas on their way to Alaska, according to marine biologist Wayne Perryman.

And that would be a first, a consecutive record in the 23 years scientists have been counting mom-and-baby pairs migrating past Piedras from mid-March to May, he said.

Perryman is the leader of the Cetacean Health and Life History Program (part of the Marine Mammal and Turtle Division at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center). He said April 19 that the 2016 tally that began about three weeks earlier, “stands at 57 calves, which is close to the average of 64 for the time series.” The counts on April 19 in previous years were as low as eight in 2001, he said, and as high as 246 in 1998.

This year’s count “is progressing well,” Perryman wrote in a multi-email interview. “I anticipate that we will have a total estimate from this season that will be comparable to last year’s estimate of about 1,450 northbound calves.”

Estimating the total number of whales in the sea is a multifaceted science, based on hard data from the observed counts (such as the one at Piedras Blancas), complex algebraic calculations and years of experience. The result is the annual population estimate.

Animals in the Eastern Pacific population of gray whales were on the U.S. endangered species list for decades, after having been almost hunted to extinction in the 19th century, according to The Nature Conservancy and other sources. Following laws that prohibit the killing of gray whales (with the exception of a small take allotted to native people in Russia), the census rebounded, and the grays were removed from the U.S. endangered species list in 1994.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, Perryman and his team began counting the mom-and-baby pairs that swim directly toward Piedras Blancas, then veer around the point on their more than 12,000-mile spring migration to the rich feeding grounds of Alaska. That’s one of the longest migrations of any species on Earth.

It takes lots of people and evolving science to count the leviathans. Perryman said 21 people will participate in the tally this year.

On a warm, sun-drenched April 21 afternoon, those standing watch included him and team members Jim Gilpatrick (who has been with the team for all 23 surveys), Victoria Pease and Hollis Europe, Jacob Barbaro, senior scientist Bob Brownell (there for a visit with his friend Bonnie Burgess), hexacopter pilot Dr. John Durban and hexacopter ground-station operator Dr. Holly Fearnbach.

The success of the hexacopter (drone) sorties over the whales has Perryman bubbling with enthusiasm.

“I’m just thrilled,” he said at the Piedras site April 21.

The unmanned aerial systems or drones “produce better data, at less cost, with greater safety to scientists (and pilots) and with no disturbance to the animals being sampled. This is absolutely a game changer” for the whales to provide a context for the counts.

Scientists talk about the annual gray whale survey, done with the help of a drone, at the Piedras Blancas Light Station on SLO County's North Coast in May 2015.

Counting whales

Patience is a virtue when whale watching anywhere. Whales show up on their own schedules. No matter how long you watch, there’s almost always a beautiful view, with or without the cetaceans, which removes any resemblance there might have been to watching paint dry.

Fortunately, spotting a whale is always a thrill, even if you’ve been standing watch in all kinds of weather, for up to six hours a day, five days a week (budget cuts have reduced their previous schedule) for weeks, as do some of the scientists.

Perryman’s crew sits on bistro-height directors’ chairs perched behind a rugged table. The temporary setup sits on a raised platform backed by a rough wooden wall, which helps deflect winds that often buffet the point.

The crew spots many species in the sea and the air above it, including the critically endangered blue whales, but the scientists are focusing this time on the grays.

After a couple of really busy days of counting, the morning count on April 21 had been slow, Pease said. By about 1:30 p.m., the team had only seen four cow-calf pairs heading northward toward and around the point on their way to Alaska.

The crew’s mood was relaxed but hyperalert, rather like that sensed during an activity lull at a firehouse.

Then, right on cue, within less than 20 minutes, five mom-and-baby whale pairs came into view. The first pair lollygagged around a bit in the bay, the next three sets swam more directly north, and the fifth pair speed-swam, seemingly to catch up to the others.

As soon as the first pair was spotted, team members’ eyes, binoculars, long-range lenses and full attention immediately focused south into the bay. The humans closely tracked the progress of the whales swimming directly toward, then around, Point Piedras Blancas. As the whales swam, spouted, dove and even breached, they were under constant, vigilant supervision until they were out of sight and out of range of the various high-tech, photographic and electronic devices.

That equipment included a camera-toting hexacopter (drone) and all the equipment needed to control the aircraft and its photographic abilities.

No, professional whale watching is not at all like watching paint dry.

Drone 101

Perryman said the team is assembling much better data now than at the beginning of the count, 23 years ago. He credits much of the recent improvement to the drones.

This is the second year the hexacopter is taking spectacular pictures and recording precise measurements at Piedras Blancas.

We have always wanted to do aerial imaging of the northbound cows with calves, but it is just too costly and too difficult to do with a manned platform.

Wayne Perryman, marine biologist

In each aerial photo-taking sortie, Durban and Fearnbach turn on and examine their equipment, verifying that, among other preflight checks, the drone’s batteries are fully charged and the six propellers are turning as they should.

Durban hands Fearnbach the drone, which she holds above her head like a winning hockey player with the Stanley Cup. Durban adjusts his controls, and the drone takes off out of Fearnbach’s hands.

As Durban sends the aircraft up and out over the sea, Fearnbach sits down on the ground in a hard-shell, rocking beach chair. She huddles under a blanket to shield the monitor’s screen from the sun, and begins calling out a running report of numbers and descriptions, telling the pilot what the drone’s camera is seeing while keeping him current minute by minute on such stats as distance, altitude and battery level.

It takes both of them to make the process a success. He’s the hands that control the drone, she’s the eyes that watch what the aircraft’s lens is seeing.

When she sees a whale on the screen, she verbally guides Durban so he can guide the drone until it’s directly over the whale pair.

“To the left, to the left, kelp in the upper right, to the left, whale to the left,” she intones. “Whales in view.”

Then Durban starts shooting pictures from the tiny aircraft hovering high (150 feet or more) above the whales.

Lots of data

Drone-generated pictures can be so strikingly clear that details previously unseen are showing up.

“What we get from the images we capture from the drones,” Perryman said, “are quantitative data on the size and shape of the whales, and also data on scarring related to entanglements and/or strikes by ships/boats.”

“It is one thing to say whales look skinny, but those kinds of subjective data are hard to compare across seasons,” he explained. “When you have accurate and precise data on how wide animals are compared to their length, you can rate average condition of whales between years and then look for clues within the environment that may relate to the observed changes.

“We can also look at the impact skinny moms have on the growth and robustness of their calves.”

That precision is a dream realized for the exacting scientist.

He explained, “We have always wanted to do aerial imaging of the northbound cows with calves, but it is just too costly and too difficult to do with a manned platform. The whales are hard to see and track from the air, and making pass after pass trying to get an image in which the animals are at the surface and flat and level” is hard on the scientists and the whales.

Little noise

Perryman said, “With the drone we can hover 150 feet above the animal and then catch those perfect images of the cow and calf at the surface. Because the drone is so quiet, the whale has no idea we are there.

“Not only is the sound generated by the drone very low,” that sound would have to “penetrate into the water for the whales to hear it,” he said. “Also, the near-shore environment is very noisy,” a veritable crescendo of the sounds of surf, wind and inshore animals, so any hums from the drone that could penetrate the water “would be swamped by background noise.”

In fact, standing by a drone as it gears up, departs, flies around and lands, the loudest sound is the “tweedle-beep” it gives when it’s turned on, kind of a cross between the voices of R2D2 and a Tribble.

We have always wanted to do aerial imaging of the northbound cows with calves, but it is just too costly and too difficult to do with a manned platform.

Wayne Perryman, marine biologist

Perryman said, “We have been using these systems to sample (measure) killer whales, humpback whales, gray whales, North Atlantic right whales and blue whales, and we have yet to see a response to the drones from these animals.

“To sample the breath of right whales, for instance, John flies at about 10 feet above the whales and we have yet to see a response.”

He said, “The images we collect from these systems are better than anything we have ever collected from manned platforms,” he said. “The operations are much cheaper and safer than sampling from manned aircraft, and they cause no disturbance, if operated in a responsible manner.”

And responsibility is the key, especially at a time when there’s a growing hue and cry about drone safety.


“Because we are federal employees and these are public aircraft, we have to get a series of approvals for every operation,” Perryman said. “To work here at Piedras Blancas, our pilots have to be certified by both the FAA and NOAA and complete the FAA ground-school course, test and physicals given to pilots who fly manned aircraft.

“Then they complete NOAA’s hexacopter training course and become certified by NOAA’s Office of Aircraft Operations. Then we submit a safety/operations plan for approval by NOAA, obtain airspace clearance from the FAA, and get permission to fly from the Department of Interior.”

Experience is also important — Durban and Fearnbach have now flown more than 700 flight missions above whales of several different types.

“By the time we get into the air” each year, Perryman said with a rueful smile, “we have generated a pile of paper that weighs twice as much as the aircraft we fly.”

He said, “There is the potential for irresponsible operators to disturb animals,” and endanger people with small unmanned aerial systems. Because of some previous cases involving mostly well-meaning but uninformed amateur pilots, “the public has gotten the opinion that all of these operations are dangerous and poorly managed,” which isn’t the case.

Perryman said he understands the concerns about those irresponsible operators and agrees that something must be done to educate, regulate and control their flights.

But when drones are properly permitted and operated according to regulations, safety precautions and common sense, he said, “The total lack of disturbance associated with sampling with these systems is one of the reasons that they are now used to sample whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions and penguins at sites from the Antarctic to the Bering Sea.”

Goal, set, match

Later, Durban compared a couple of photographs of gray-whale pairs that “show contrasting body condition — one is a fairly skinny mother and calf, the other is a relatively robust female, taken the previous day.

“This illustrates the goal of our project,” the pilot said, “to document the condition of mothers, and how it might influence growth (and ultimate survival) of their calves, so that we can detect between-year changes in health within the population.

“So, we don’t help count whales with the hexacopter, but rather we can provide new detail on the health and condition of individuals to provide more understanding of the reasons behind the abundance changes that are detected with our counts.”

Durban mused about the past.

“It was only a few decades ago that scientists examined dead whales at whaling stations in order to learn about body condition and size. Now we can do that from photographs taken with a small drone flying high above the whales without disturbing them.”