This new aerial survey of the New England area shows that the gray seal population is making a huge comeback.

Using drone footage, thermal cameras, and images from Google Earth, scientists at Duke University have found that there are now twice as many gray seals than originally thought in the Cape Cop, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket area.

“Past surveys based on traditional methods of counting, using occupied aircraft to survey seals on beaches, islands and seasonal ice cover, counted about 15,000 seals off the southeastern Massachusetts coast,” said David W. Johnston, assistant professor at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

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“Our technology-aided aerial survey, which used Google Earth imagery in conjunction with telemetry data from tagged animals, suggests the number is much larger – between 30,000 and 50,000. This is a conservation success that should be celebrated,” he added.

Gray seals were popular hunting prey up until the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in the early 70s. As their numbers started to recover, scientists found it incredibly difficult to count the marine mammals due to their ability to camouflage into their environment.

With thermal imaging technology, however, cameras can detect the heat signature of the seals, rather than depending on pure vision alone.

“Seal pups are born with a white coat, which makes them hard to see against ice or snow using traditional imagery,” said Alex Seymour, the study’s lead researcher. “But they can’t hide from thermal imagery.”

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