Oregon State University researchers use unmanned aerial drones to observe behaviors in gray whales not seen before.

COURTESY: OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - Gray whales as observed from a camera in an unmanned aerial drone. In the classic sci-fi movie "Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe," dolphins stand on their heads and do other amazing tricks.

Oregon State University scientists got to see gray whales do comparable tricks — this time real ones — using aerial drone cameras.

Their work, reported this week in the journal Frontiers of Marine Science, showed gray whales engage in a lot of

behaviors that researchers didn't know about, including performing headstands, swimming upside down, playing a version of "tag" between feedings, and even some "bawdy" antics.

"Initially we began using drones to observe the whales' physical conditions," stated Leigh Torres, a principal investigator with the Marine Mammal Institute at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Institute, and lead author of the study, in an news release. "But soon we discovered that the drones can also provide us with amazing new insights into the whales' behavior — without disturbing them in the process."

Drone footage also revealed that gray whales are more social on their feeding grounds than scientists previously believed.

Only about 10 percent of the whales' lives are spent on the surface of the ocean, Torres said.

"With the drone, we can observe for much longer periods and detect new behaviors, such as what we are calling 'headstands,' where the whale is poking its head and mouth into reefs, crevices and substrates to feed.

"Surprisingly, we also have recorded the whales swimming on their sides and 'jaw-snapping' at prey, or even swimming upside-down. We are not sure why a whale would swim upside-down for three minutes, but one hypothesis is that it helps them focus better with their eyes."

The Torres-led research team is in its third year of studying whales using drones.

A highlight video of the five "coolest gray whale behaviors" can be viewed at:

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