Lt. j.g. Kyle Salling stood on the bow of a 24-foot boat in Florida Bay, holding what looked like a large model airplane. With the propellers gently whirling, and the small red and green aviation lights on, Sims launched the 13-pound aircraft like he was throwing a javelin.
The remote-controlled Puma AE banked upward into the sky and began heading toward its target, a mangrove island called Pigeon Key about a quarter-mile away in the vast Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
A flock of frigatebirds hovering around the island scattered well before the arrival of the Puma, which also looks like a big bird with its nine-foot wingspan. While there is no way of knowing if it was the Puma that startled the seabirds, many of them did return.
The Puma circled the island from about 200 feet above, capturing a bird’s-eye view of the seabirds’ activities on both video and in still pictures that were transmitted in real time back to a computer on the boat.