New tool could help track health, safety of Southern Resident orcas

SEATTLE — A new tool could help track the health and safety of Southern Resident orcas and speed up the process for researchers.

We’ve seen drones and helicopters over the waters of Puget sound taking photos of the endangered orcas.

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They’ve been photographed from the air for 14 years, and those pictures give researchers an idea of how they’re doing.

Now, a computerized machine learning tool is going to help organize those photos, which could help save the Southern Residents.

“We’re also able to ID these animals of concern or animals that we consider to be vulnerable and pregnant,” said Marine Mammal Research Director Holly Fearnbach.

The science of saving Southern Resident orcas involves a painstaking review of many photos.

“It could take up to six months for the analysis. If we could get it down to several weeks, it would save us a lot of funds,” said Fearnbach.

A single flight over an orca pod may produce 2,000 images. A month of tracking produces tens of thousands. Now, a tool developed by Seattle’s Vulcan Inc. will help measure the images of the orcas, giving the true picture of their health.

KIRO 7 reporter Ranji Sinha asked what researchers would do with the time saved from processing all those pictures.

“Breathe a little! We have a number of different local projects, and projects in other parts of the world, so it actually just allows us to tackle all of our projects,” said Fearnbach.

It’s the first tool of its kind. Measurements help scientists see how the orcas are faring. Six months of work sorting and measuring photos has shrunk down to six weeks. Soon, crunching the numbers may only take days.

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“This tool is a down payment toward what we think is possible here,” said Sam McKennoch, manager of Vulcan’s machine learning team.

The tool will also give researchers real-time information that could be shared with agencies. Those groups could help the pods by freeing up space around them for foraging, or tracking an orca in distress, all with the goal of saving them.

“This will act as a sort of an early warning system before whales die,” said Fearnbach.

The tool could also be used to track other marine life and be applied to the conservation and protection of other species.