When it comes to endangered species, conservationists and scientists have a tricky tightrope to walk. They need to assess populations’ activities as well as size and health, but don’t want to disturb delicate species—especially endangered ones. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration solve this problem by using drones, which recently captured a stunning rare glimpse of killer whales and their babies.
The images above were taken by NOAA on a recent research expedition. And they’re more than eye candy: They’re a first glimpse at members of an extremely endangered population. In fact, only 81 Southern Resident killer whales still exist, says NOAA’s Rich Press in a blog post about the expedition.
The research expedition spotted a milestone in the whales’ lives—a baby boom that’s heartening marine biologists. No less than five new killer whale babies have been born in the past year, and the new photos reveal intimate details about how Southern Residents nurse, swim and raise their young.
The photos reveal the closeness of killer whale mothers and calves during the very first days of their babies’ lives and how entire killer whale families get involved in nursing and protecting precious calves.
For more information on the spectacular images above, check out this video, which features marine biologist John Durban’s in-depth explanations of the images.
Erin Blakemore is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist. Her work has appeared in publications like The Washington Post, TIME, mental_floss, Popular Science and JSTOR Daily. Learn more at erinblakemore.com.