How are drones helping scientists learn about Kaikōura’s dolphins?

Could drones be the future of learning more about Kaikōura’s marine wildlife?

Yes, according to recent research published in the journal Aquatic Mammals, which included KORI director, Dr. Jody Weir, and KORI member Carys Protheroe.

Along with a multinational team of scientists led by Bernd Würsig (Texas A&M University) and including Lorenzo Fiori (University of Auckland), they analysed the potential for using drones for studying dusky dolphin behaviour.

In particular, the team wanted to get a better understanding of how calves and mothers interact in nursery groups, and larger pods. They examined factors such as swimming speeds, inter-adult distances and breathing and suckling rates for the mothers and calves.

Drones were used to study dusky dolphins in Kaikōura, including mothers and calves.
The team used drones to learn more about the behaviour of Kaikōura’s dusky dolphins.

Why use drones to study dolphins?

The study found two main advantages to studying dolphins using drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs):

  1. Gaining a new perspective

Boat and shore based research projects have provided important insights into dusky behaviour, but there are limitations.

For example, tracking individuals within larger groups is difficult as only 52% of this dolphins have identifiable markings on their dorsal fins. By filming from above, and analysing the footage after, however, the team was able to follow specific mothers and calves with relative ease.

  1. Little to no disturbance

When trying to learn about a species’ natural behaviour disturbance is a significant problem – animals act differently if they know they’re being observed.

The fact that drones are able to remain distant helps overcome this problem. Dolphins have no natural aerial predators, meaning that even if they’re aware of the slight noise created by the UAVs, it’s unlikely they see them as a threat.

Drones made it easy for the scientists to track dusky dolphins, even in large pods.
The study analysed dusky dolphin behaviour in nursery groups, as well as larger pods like this.

What were the results?

Bernd Würsig (who is a huge supporter of KORI!) has been researching dusky dolphins since 1972, and claimed that the two week Kaikōura study “provided the most rich return of data” he has experienced in such a short time.

By using drones the team was able to gain insights into the lives of these dolphins that had been previously impossible. More importantly, this is only the beginning.

As Jody says, “We now have hours of video data that we will use to publish on other aspects of the behaviour we saw, such as mating activity.”

While we’re very excited by what this technology can offer, it’s important that it’s used responsibly. In New Zealand, flying drones near marine mammals, or over any conservation land can only be done with concession from the Department of Conservation (DOC). More details are available on the DOC website.





Intern profile: Bryce Talsma

27th July 2018 

We hope you have been following her across our Facebook and Instagram channels, but here’s a bit more on KORI’s current intern – who comes all the way from the USA.

Bryce Talsma (aged 23) grew up in a small town in west Michigan, and from a young age wanted to get be a vet, but also held an affinity with the ocean and marine life.

Shore-based studies help us track the movement of marine wildlife across the bay.
Bryce has piloted a shore-based study of our Kaikōura’s marine mammals.

‘I remember when I was a little girl, I kept a jar of money that I would continually add to so I could swim with dolphins. It was my dream. I had dolphin everything…stuffed animals, towels, paintings, puzzles, earrings, rings, and blankets.’

When it came time to choose a university programme she was torn between marine biology and veterinary medicine and, in the end, decided on the latter.

However, when the opportunity arose for her to join the Creation Care Study Programme (CCSP) in Kaikōura, she jumped at it.

During her time at CCSP she was taught by KORI’s own Jody Weir, and began volunteering with our team monitoring the South Bay penguin colony. Whilst she returned to the US for her studies, Kaikōura was never far from her mind.

‘Kaikōura is one of those places you can’t help but fall in love with… I’ve been planning my return since the day I left.’

Fast-forward a little, and Bryce is back!

Our volunteers and interns often help out with boat-based sur
Our boat-based surveys help us keep track of marine wildlife in the Kaikōura area.

Bryce has been interning at KORI since June 1stand has proved herself a hugely valuable member of the team.

We have kept her busy. As well as assisting with our marine mammal surveys and the Kaikōura penguin colony, Bryce has a number of projects of her own.

We hope you have seen her out on the peninsula where she has been developing methods to monitor the humpback migration, along with our other marine mammals, as they move through the area from a shore-based lookout station.

As well as noting group sizes, behaviours, and the timings of sightings, she is hoping that this is a project the community can get involved with.

‘There is a wealth of knowledge in this town, and this is a wonderful opportunity to share with one another.’

Her other focus has been on the same penguin colony that began her involvement with KORI in 2015.

‘The Secret Life of Penguins’, has been running across our Facebook and Instagram profiles for the last few weeks, and shows feeds from hidden cameras setup in the South Bay penguin colony. This has been particularly exciting as it has given us the first-ever footage of Kaikōura penguin mating behaviour.

As well as analysing the footage Bryce is researching the benefits of our purpose-built-nest-boxes for reducing penguin predation and determining if there are ways we could improve them.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and Bryce will be heading home on July 31stbut it seems like she will be leaving with some great memories…

Kaikoura has become a home to me and the people I have met and the wildlife I have spent my days studying have so greatly impacted me. I think I’m living my 5 year-old self’s dream.’

Here’s to Bryce.

Having volunteers and interns help out with our work is vital to KORI's success.

Update: Hector’s Health Surveys

March 20th 2018

Our new project is underway!

We have begun piloting a new technique which we will hope will teach us more about the health of our local Hector’s dolphins.

We are using a sampling technique never before attempted with this species known as ‘blow sampling’ to determine whether it can be used to detect infectious diseases.

hectors sample2
We use a petri dish on the end of a long pole to catch samples of dolphin ‘blow’.

This method has been used successfully in the past with orca, humpbacks and bottlenose dolphins, and requires us to capture the air and water expelled from the Hector’s blowhole (basically dolphin breath!).

We do this using a petri dish on the end of a long pole, and the samples are then labelled and sent away for analysis at the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences at Massey University.

This project was prompted by the discovery of a new disease within our local Hector’s dolphin population.

In December 2016 a Hector’s dolphin that washed near Harnett’s Creek, Kaikōura, was found to have died from tuberculosis. The bacteria that causes this particular strain of tuberculosis, Mycrobacterium pinnipeddi, is common in fur seals in sea lions, and has been reported seven times in New Zealand beef cattle, but has never before been found in cetaceans (dolphins, whales and porpoises).

Hector’s are only found around New Zealand, and are already listed as endangered, so it is crucial that we understand how infectious diseases such as tuberculosis are making their way into our local dolphin populations.

The blow samples are collected in tubes and sent for anaylsis.
The samples are sent to Massey University where we hope analysis will teach us more about the health of our Hector’s dolphins.

One possibility is that human related pollution and pathogens can be washed into the ocean following heavy rains. This phenomenon is known to have caused the deaths of sea otters off the California coast. In this case the otters were found to be infected with a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii which comes from cat faeces.

We are hoping that blow sampling will allow us to detect the presence of this, and other, infections– a first step in determining where the problem is coming from and devising a strategy to better protect our dolphins from this new threat.