Where are the Cook Inlet beluga whales going?

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Paul Wade and his crew are on a mission: Find the belugas.

Photo by NOAA.

"When I started this," said Wade, a research biologist who primarily works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Science Marine Mammal Lab, "a lot of people said, you do know that you can't see through the water in Cook Inlet, right? I said, 'Why yes, I do.'"

But because of a specially designed piece of equipment, Wade and his research team can instead both see and survey the whales from far above that water.

Using a custom-built hexacopter - essentially, a six-winged remotely-manned drone - to get photos and video of the swimming mammals, they can in turn use the data gathered to help estimate the current population, which appears to have shrunk even after recreational hunting of the animal was banned.

"We thought (the population) would increase, but it seems to have actually declined slightly," Wade said. "That's very concerning."

It's also a big reason why Wade and the team have decided to pursue the project.

"This really is a special population," Wade said. "They're genetically isolated, they're a long way from any other beluga population.

"And they're swimming right past the city of Anchorage, right past the Port of Anchorage, just coming right through," he said.

The process is relatively easy, but tedious, and requires much precision. For ten days, Wade and his team went out on a boat each day - to the Susitna Delta, Chickaloon Bay, and other areas - generally for six hours or more at a time.

Even that starts with calculating water levels.

"We're always timing it with the tides," Wade said. "So we get all the gear on board: the hexacopter, my camera, equipment to take notes and record data and all that. Then we just get out there and go, and usually we have a fairly long run."

Out on the water, they use the hexacopter to capture footage that will help them figure out which whales are where, when they're there, and other information. That all comes together to determine specific measurements of the whales, which helps with population calculation.

"We're identifying the whales by scars and scratches, things on their flanks, on the dorsal ridge," Wade said. "But what we'll get out of the photos is, primarily, we will be able to measure the lengths of the whales."

The drone has a precise altimeter on it, which measures how far above the water it is at any given time. Then, using the focal length of the lens, the team uses what's called photogrametry to calculate exact lengths of the whales.

And even for Wade, who's been conducting whale research for decades, belugas are a whole new thing.

"Most of my research has been out in the Aleutians on humpbacks and other types of whales," he said. "I hadn't really seen belugas. It was fairly recently I got to see them up close. It's been very exciting."

Team members, most of whom traveled up from the Lower 48 for the research, will return to Anchorage in the coming days to do further research on the local beluga population.

To read more on the endangered beluga whales of Cook Inlet, click here, where you will find an official NOAA report.

Please note that NOAA's survey was and is a federally permitted scientific study. Officials advise that people not fly their own drones or versions of a hexacopter over beluga whales or any other marine mammals.