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Army drone spots beluga whales in distress

By Bonney Bowman 5:49 PM September 26, 2014

The U.S. Army’s unmanned aircraft are the eyes in the skies during missions, monitoring the action on the ground. But last month, the aircraft took on an unusual task.

On a Saturday at the end of August, soldiers at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson were training with unmanned aircraft, supporting the National Guard.

“They were flying some UH-60 Blackhawks in the area and we were giving them an observational view of their training exercises,” said UAS operator Pfc. Raymond Lounsbury.

That’s when the drone’s camera spotted something unusual: large pods of beluga whales, high and dry in the mud in Eagle Bay.

Drone operator Pfc. Kristopher Harrell says for him, coming from Nevada, it was an exciting experience.

“It’s cool. It’s definitely not something you see every day, especially coming from a desert,” Harrell said.

Counts showed more than 70 whales stranded as the tide went out.

The soldiers thought five were dead, so they called the National Marine Fisheries offices, who launched a big response effort.

“It was money, it was time, it was staff because we were trying to get teams together for five necropsies and so it takes several people to conduct a necropsy on an animal as large as a beluga whale,” said marine mammal biologist Mandy Migura.

But then the cameras showed something else.

“We were able to watch the tide come back in and watch them go about their day and it saved a lot of people from going out there to make sure these whales were OK,” Lounsbury said.

“We were very concerned and it was really gratifying to be able, that same day, on a Saturday, to be able to view that video footage and see that the five animals that they tracked and they thought were dead were actively swimming,” Migura said.

The whales survived and the fisheries office called off the response, saving time and money.

It’s all part of their partnership with the military.

“They have been great. Their pilots have been sending us photographs when they see dead whales,” Migura said. “This experience seems to have been a really great outcome of that collaboration and that partnership.”

“Any time we get a chance to be able to help the community of the other areas in this great state, it’s a wonderful situation to be in,” Harrell said.

Helping stranded whales isn’t the soldiers’ usual mission, but it’s one they say they’re happy to accomplish.

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