The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released what one of its experts calls the most detailed photograph yet taken in the wild of a killer whale nursing her calf.
The photograph above was taken by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) surveying the Southern Resident killer whale population recently near the San Juan Islands north of Seattle, where the community of whales spends part of the year. It shows a young killer whale coming up from behind its mother and nursing.
While killer whale calves have been photographed nursing in captivity, NOAA Fisheries marine mammal biologist John Durban called the image "stunning" and a first, for its detail, in the wild.
"This is the first time we've seen this kind of behavior in this kind of clarity," said Durban, in a recent podcast hosted by NOAA.
Durban took part in the UAV expedition that resulted in the photo, and he added that prior attempts to photograph such behavior were made from helicopters, which were simply too high in the air to provide the kind of detail gained using the UAV (which always remained at least 90 feet above the animals, NOAA said, so as not to disturb them).
The calf in the photo is special for another reason. Southern Resident killer whales are highly endangered, with only 81 left in the community, according to the NOAA. But that small number includes five new young whales, which qualifies as a baby boom for a population of that size.
Surveys with UAVs help the scientists make periodic checkups on the adult whales and calves, to determine if both mother and child are healthy and that the mother is getting enough food to support them both (lactation comes at a high energy cost, NOAA says).
See the white saddle patch on the mother? The distinctive marking is something that helps the NOAA scientists tell one whale from another. The mother in this photo is known by the designation L94.