Since when does NOAA study polar bears?

We use drones to survey Steller sea lions but what about northern fur seals?


May 16, 2019
Katie Sweeney



restingbear.pngThis post may come to a surprise to you. You may find yourself thinking, “I didn’t think NOAA studied polar bears…” Well, you’d be right! The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with monitoring and managing polar bear populations, and other marine mammal species such as, manatees, sea otters, and walrus (and I bet they would have jurisdiction of the Steller sea cow, as well, if it wasn’t extinct!). The Fish and Wildlife Service also manages numerous terrestrial species. NOAA monitors and manages the other marine mammal species and commercial fish species. 


Those marine mammal species include ribbon, spotted, ringed, and bearded seals, also referred to as “ice seals.” The method that the Polar Ecosystem Program here at NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Laboratory uses to survey these species is with fixed wing, occupied aircraft. These seals can be pretty spread out throughout the sea ice, and therefore challenging to find. They have a special camera system that is equipped with three cameras that capture standard, visual images (like those you take with your cell phone or point and shoot camera) and three thermal cameras. These are similar to the ones we used during our northern fur seal surveys, last year.

Image result for alaska ice seal
Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Since these surveys are conducted over sea-ice to look for ice seals, it only makes sense to also look for polar bears at the same time. Polar bears prey on certain ice seal species and heavily depend on sea-ice so there is overlap of habitat between all of these species. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA are collaborating on developing these surveys to better detect polar bears, as the current method does great detecting ice seals, but not polar bears. To help, I was fortunate enough to go on a trip to Ontario Canada to visit the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat to test out a new camera and answer some questions to help the lead biologist figure out how to better detect polar bears.

Olympus point and shoot and UV camera (red lens on upper left). Credit: NOAA Fisheries

This new camera is a UV camera which means the UV light that the sun emits is captured in the image. Polar bears absorb UV light so they show up as black whereas clean snow and ice, reflect UV light and shows up white. This sort of camera and imaging capability would come in handy to detect black bears when polar bears do not show up well in visual images (think: white bears against white snow and ice) or in thermal images (think: well-insulated younger bears that just went for a swim and show up as ‘colder’ and can be confused with dirty snow and ice ‘hot spots’).

Visual image (left) and UV image (right) with red arrows pointing to polar bear. Credit: NOAA Fisheries
Visual image (left) and thermal image (right) with red arrow pointing to polar bear. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

BearWhile in Canada at the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat, we were able to fly over the five polar bears at the bear habitat with our new hexacopter drones, the APH-28s. One hexacopter had the thermal camera (FLIR DUO Pro R) which also has visual image capabilities. The other system had a regular point and shoot camera to collect visual images and the new UV camera that was built at MML. This opportunity allowed us to answer important questions to greatly improve our future survey methods.

I have been a biologist in NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center studying Steller sea lion population abundance and life history for over 10 years. I am an FAA certified remote pilot and have been flying marine mammal surveys with our hexacopter since 2014. I earned my B.S. in Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington and my Master in Coastal Environmental Management at Duke University. 

Author: Steller Watch

Blog for Steller Watch, a Project