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Researchers get good view of orca pod from zeppelin

EVERETT – Pilot Katharine Board often sees pods of blue, gray and killer whales as she flies along the California coast. Compared with other pilots, however, she has a unique vantage point – low and slow – from the only operational zeppelin in the United States.

Board’s airship, a modern model of an aircraft that is a throwback to the 1930s era of aviation, gives her a clear and steady view of the sea giants.

“The great thing about moving slowly and low – we fly 1,000 feet above the ground and our cruising speed is 40 miles per hour – is that you really get to see the world, you really do get to see the places you’re in,” Board said.

This past month, Farmers’ Insurance, the company that sponsors the zeppelin, donated a day of flying to a group of scientists so they could film and photograph an orca pod in Washington’s Puget Sound and San Juan Islands.

Usually the zeppelin – christened “Eureka” – offers commercial sightseeing flights along the West Coast for up to 12 passengers per flight, with prices ranging from $200 to $1,000 per person.

Many associate zeppelin flight with the tragedy of the German passenger airship Hindenburg, which exploded into flames at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey on May 6, 1937, killing 36 people.

Since then, there have been many safety improvements with zeppelins, including a key difference: Zeppelins no longer employ highly flammable hydrogen as lifting gas. The Eureka uses helium. The Eureka also uses a computerized wire system to steer the ship, and its structure is made of carbon fiber material.

While visually similar, zeppelins are different from the blimps often seen at sporting events. Blimps are much smaller and don’t have the rigid structure.

“It’s a balance between business and doing things that are really special,” said Brian Hall, owner of Airship Ventures, the owner of the zeppelin. “There are so many cool things we’ve done before with this platform.”

Hall’s airship has gone on research flights to examine biota in salt ponds, harmful algal blooms, and to seek out pipeline gas leak evidence.

Hall, who made his fortune in Silicon Valley, purchased his airship in 2006 after flying in a zeppelin during a trip to Germany. Eureka began flying in 2008, after months of negotiating permits to allow a zeppelin to fly again in American air space.

Eureka arrived in a cargo ship from Europe and was flown from Texas to its base in California. Hall said it took three days to cruise above Texas alone.

Hall was aboard for the whale research flight. After a few hours delay due to cloudy weather, the 246-foot-long zeppelin took off from an airfield in Everett and hovered to the American-Canadian border – an hour’s flight away.

Scouting boats had tracked the orca pod as the zeppelin floated aloft. Known as the southern resident killer whales, this group was designated as endangered in 2005. They live permanently in the Puget Sound, hunting salmon and other fish.

Scientists for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mounted high-definition cameras on the bottom of the zeppelin. A researcher for the Center for Whale Research also took pictures to calculate body measurements.

Whales move at about 3 mph, NOAA biologist Brad Hanson said, which made the zeppelin’s hovering pace even more useful for observations.

The researchers were able to observe about two dozen whales from the zeppelin. They watched the whales swim in tight groups, roll around each other and “spy hop,” moving with their heads above water.

They were able to catch glimpses of the way whales behave and move underwater, something they can’t observe from boats, Hanson said.

Weather curtailed the observation after an hour, but the scientists were still wowed.

“I get to see whales every day from a boat, and I get to see them closer than most people do,” said researcher Erin Heydenreich. “But seeing them from the air is just a completely different picture. … Watching the way they move together underwater is just incredible. That’s something you definitely don’t see and can’t very much capture from a perpendicular photograph.”

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