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Video taken under Center for Whale Research Permit 21238. Image extracted from video.

The Center for Whale Research and researchers from the University of Exeter continue our newest research study, using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), “drones,” to study the behavior of the Southern Resident killer whales from a new perspective.

CWR Aerial Observation Study (2019)

CWR Aerial Observation Study (2019)

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Watch this compilation of aerial video footage of SRKWs shot during 2019.


Southern Resident

killer whales



Since 1976, the Center for Whale Research has been conducting observation-based studies of killer whales in the Salish Sea. The unique dataset produced by this work has informed conservation efforts in both the USA and Canada and helped us understand these animals’ complex lives, revealing factors that influence survival, reproduction, social structure, and the evolution of this species unique life-history. 


Learn about the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle that we use: DJI Matrice 600 Pro.

What about disturbance to the whales?

The UAV is a non-invasive method for recording behavior, and there is minimal potential for noise disturbance to the SRKW. Recent work has shown that the noise produced by UAVs couples poorly into the water, and could only be quantified above the background noise of the recording sites at one-meter depth when flying at altitudes below 10 meters. All of our flights are conducted well above this height (typically 60 meters), and it is likely that the whales are not even aware of the presence of the UAV during our research flights.

Our research has established that a lack of salmon is the primary factor constraining the recovery of the population. However, we still have many gaps in our knowledge.


Indeed the most recent NOAA/NMFS Priority Report for the SRKW in 2015 outlined two priority questions for future research:

1) What is causing decreased SRKW reproduction? 

2) What is causing increased SRKW mortality? 


Understanding individual and group (social) behavior is key to answering both of these questions. Our research objective for the UAV activities will directly address this knowledge gap by recording how individual behavior and the behavior of social groups relate to survival and reproductive success.


Nearly all our knowledge of Southern Resident killer whale behavior is based on surface observations, from boats, and shore. However, killer whales spend almost all their time submerged and out of sight; this means that we have not been able to document most of these whales’ lives in any detail. Using a UAV gives us the opportunity to get above the whales and look down into their world. We can position our drone, a DJI Matrice 600, hundreds of feet above the whales, and monitor their movements and behaviors as they move through their world without interfering in their activity. Under the right conditions, the UAV can see to a depth of 10 meters underwater, and a lot of behavior happens in this surface zone.


In 2018, we had numerous successful drone flights, documenting a variety of behaviors, from food searching to coordinated travel and foraging, to socializing. This data is helping us to understand better social behavior and its consequences in this population, as well as foraging strategies and foraging efficiency and how this relates to survival and reproduction. With this information, we will be able to make future predictions for the health and survival of these amazing animals and inform strategies to recover this endangered population.​

Learn about the pilots who operate our drone (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle).

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2109 Aerial Study Summary
Aerial Observation Study - EXPANDED

In 2019, the CWR-University of Exeter SRKW Aerial Observation Study has been expanded and will be part of a large international project to look at how family life influences rates of aging which has been funded by the National Environmental Research Council in the United Kingdom. The overall project will have three subprojects. The first will develop new theory for how family dynamics influence the rates of aging and changes in behavior across the lifespan invertebrate populations (particularly looking at sex differences). The second project will test the behavioral predictions of this work in the Southern Resident killer whales using drone observations. Finally, researchers from the University of Exeter will then undertake a comparative project that will assemble data across social mammals to test the generality of the theory developed.


CWR Scientific Advisor (Animal Social Networks) and Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter, Dr. Darren Croft,  summarizes the project: 

The Evolution of Sex Differences in Mammalian Social Life Histories

"Understanding why social behavior and life histories have diverged between the sexes in long-lived social mammals, sometimes to an extreme degree, is a key objective in the biological, medical and social sciences. Our research team proposes that differences between the sexes in how males and females interact with related individuals across the lifespan is a major force driving the evolution of sex differences in both social behavior and life history. 


In social species, related individuals (kin) often live together in close-knit family groups and individuals can influence the survival and reproductive success of their relatives both by their behavior (cooperative and competitive) and reproductive decisions (if an individual reproduces it will use resources that may negatively impact on the survival and reproductive success of kin). Such interactions between kin are a strong evolutionary force, with individuals gaining indirect benefits (through the genes they share with relatives) by increasing the survival and reproductive success of their kin. For example, kin selection can favor individual strategies that increase the reproductive success of kin, even if this comes at a cost to an individual’s own survival and reproductive success. The opportunity for evolution to be shaped by kin selection is dependent on how and when related individuals interact. 


Our pilot work suggests that in many species males and females experience very different patterns of local relatedness across their lifespans (kinship dynamics) due to patterns of dispersal and mating. For example, for some species such as Southern Resident killer whales females are predicted to become more related to their local group with age whereas males, in contrast, are predicted to become less related. 


We hypothesize that sex differences in kinship dynamics will be a major force driving the evolution of sex differences in both (i) social behavior and (ii) life history.


We will determine the role of kinship dynamics in driving the evolution of sex differences in social behavior and life history evolution using a combination of theoretical modeling and empirical data analysis. We will develop a general theory of kinship dynamics and develop new models to predict both the patterns of kinship dynamics and their consequences for the evolution of social life histories in both males and females. Our model will make predictions for patterns of helping and harming in social groups including both behavioral traits (cooperation and conflict) and reproductive traits (e.g., age at first or last reproduction).


We will provide the first test of the behavioral predictions of our new theory by collecting new data on patterns of helping (e.g., babysitting and food sharing) and harming (aggression) in Southern Resident killer whales using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). Resident killer whales are ideally suited to testing the behavioral predictions of the model - they are predicted to have extreme sex differences in patterns of kinship dynamics and have unexplained sex differences in life history. We will test the life history predictions of the theoretical framework by comparing patterns of sex differences in life history evolution (e.g. patterns of growth, age at first reproduction, age at last reproduction, reproductive investment and longevity) across social mammals which will allow us to determine the role of kinship dynamics in driving the divergence of life histories between the sexes.


Our CWR-University of Exeter research will further our understanding of the evolution of sex differences in life history and social behavior and will leave a new theoretical framework that will provide testable predictions for the evolution of behavior and life-history traits in social mammals, including humans.​"

In 2019, some of the drone footage shot of Southern Resident killer whales will be taken with a 360-degree camera for use with virtual reality headsets at the Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor.

Aerial Observation Studies Team


Drone Data Collection

Ken Balcomb - CWR Principal Investigator & Senior Scientist

Dr. Michael Weiss - University of Exeter; CWR Field Biologist and Drone Pilot

Chris Teren - CWR Drone Pilots 

Dr. Darren CroftCWR Scientific Advisor (Animal Social Networks) and Professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter

Other Project Team Members

Dr. Sam Ellis -  Postdoctoral researcher, University of Exeter

Dr. Dan FranksReader, Department of Biology.

University of York

Mike Cant - Professor of Evolutionary Biology, University of Exeter 

Rufus Johnstone - Professor, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge 

Dr. Tom Currie - Associate Professor in Cultural Evolution, University of Exeter

Paolo Domenici - National Research Council, Oristano, Italy 

Evolution of Sex Differences
Drone Pilots
DJI Matrice 600 Pro