National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2020

Test of unmanned surface vehicles to conduct remote focal follow studies of a marine predator

Kuhn, C.E., A. De Robertis, J.T. Sterling, C.W. Mordy, C. Meinig, N. Lawrence-Slavas, E.D. Cokelet, M. Levine, H.M. Tabisola, R. Jenkins, D. Peacock, and D. Vo

Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser., 635, 1-7, doi: 10.3354/meps13224, View online (2020)

We tested the feasibility of using Saildrone unmanned wind- and solar-powered surface vehicles to conduct remote focal follow studies of northern fur seals Callorhinus ursinus. Using Argos satellite and transmitted GPS locations, the Saildrones followed a fur seal while recording oceanographic conditions and mapping prey abundance and depth distribution using a scientific echosounder. The Saildrones successfully followed 6 fur seals over 2.4 ± 0.2 d (mean ± SE) and 149.7 ± 16.3 km of the foraging path. Median separation distance between the Saildrone and fur seal path was 0.65 ± 0.1 km and average time separation was 9.9 ± 1.4 h, with minimum time separations ranging from 1.9-4.9 h. Time and distance separation were a function of both animal behavior and study design. Our results show that Saildrones can approach satellite tracked marine predators from long distances and follow them over extended periods while collecting oceanographic and prey data. These successful focal follows demonstrate that unmanned surface vehicles are a valuable tool for collecting data on fine-scale relationships between marine predators, their prey, and the environment.

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