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Taking time to learn, reboot, refresh and refocus at the MMRP

Written by Guido Parra

View of beautiful Lanikai Beach from Lanikai Pillbox hike, Kailua, Oahu, Hawaii.

After almost 13 years post my PhD and working hard to climb up the academic food chain, I decided it was time to take a sabbatical and learn something new while getting a chance to disconnect and reset. Luckily for me I knew the exact place to do just that, the Marine Mammal Research Program (MMRP) at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on beautiful Oahu.

The MMRP conducts both empirical and applied research focusing on marine mammals in Hawaiian, national and international waters. The lab which is directed by Lars Bejder, is a world leader in the development and application of non-invasive and innovative technologies to study the ecology of cetaceans. Among these technologies is the use of Unoccupied Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for monitoring whales and dolphins, which I am very interested in applying to the study of inshore delphinids behavioural ecology.

Photographs and video from UAVs can be used to obtain various body measurements of individual whales and dolphins including body size, and width, which then can be used to derive indices of body condition. These studies rely on obtaining photographs of animals whose full body is visible and non-arching at the surface. Delphinids rarely lie flat at the surface and thus their full body is often not fully visible; which means measurements derived from UAV photogrammetry could be significantly biased. Consequently, calibration and ground-truthing of measurements taken from aerial digital photographs are critical for the assessment of their accuracy and precision. Fortunately for me, Fabien Vivier, a young and bright-upcoming marine mammal scientist at the MMRP is currently doing exactly that as part of his PhD studies, in collaboration with NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, by comparing measurements derived from UAVs with those obtained directly from dolphins housed at Dolphin Quest Oahu, Hawaii (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Left: Fabien conducting UAV flight over an individual dolphin at Dolphin Quest. Right: photograph obtained and ready for morphometric measurements. (Photos: Marie Hill, Fabien Vivier).

Fabien’s PhD is investigating the use of UAVs for collecting aerial images of groups of delphinids to estimate length measurements and infer age structure amongst these populations. The long-term goal of his research is to estimate population growth and survival rates as indicators of health and status for small delphinids. While in Oahu, I am receiving training from Fabien and colleagues on the application and use of UAVs, from getting to know the systems they are using to the analysis of the images obtained. So far, I have had the chance to participate in the measurement of animals in captivity for ground-truthing of measurements taken from a UAVs (Fig. 2); UAV test flights at different heights to assess the precision of measurements of know size objects (Fig 3), and the design of new brackets for the special altimeter system used in the UAVs.

Figure 2. Taking body measurements of Nai Noa at Dolphin Quest for comparison with measurements taken from a UAVs (Photo: Mariella Echeverry).

Figure 3. Helping Fabien, Marie Hill and Kym Yano (NOAA, JIMAR) with drone test flights at Kawainui model airplane field (Photos: Fabien Vivier & Guido Parra).

Sabbaticals are not a vacation in the lying on the beach, surfing, and sipping Hawaiian Mai Tais sense, they are periods of personal and professional pursuit. While at the MMRP for the next 2 months I hope to learn as much as I can on the use of UAVs and develop collaborations to extend the application of this innovative technology to the study of small delphinids. The MMRP and colleagues have been very welcoming, and I can’t think of a better place to be for my first sabbatical. To be honest going to work here is so good that it feels like a vacation, and as such I shall also find the time to lye on the beach, surf and sip as many Mai Tais as I can!




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