Rare drone footage of Canada’s largest marine mammal is now available, assisting researchers and the public get a closer look at this magnificent Arctic species. In a project undertaken by LGL Ltd, an environmental research firm and the World Wildlife Fund, and working with drone operator VDOS Global, unique footage of bowhead whales, elusive creatures was captured.
“It was amazing to see how the whales were completely undisturbed in the presence of the drone. You can watch them rolling, flipper slapping, tail breaching, socializing, all while being filmed by a drone as low as 50 feet,” says Brandon Laforest, senior specialist Arctic species and ecosystems, with WWF-Canada.
Every year, hundreds of bowhead whales – the longest-living mammals in the world with a lifespan of up to 200 years – spend the summer gorging on plankton in Pangnirtung and Kingnait Fiords, before heading south to the Hudson Strait for the winter. Despite their size, bowhead whales are rather elusive and until recently, scientists had to rely on lower-quality aerial observations made using small aircraft at higher altitudes.
Through the use of drones, the team was able to capture rare high-quality images and videos of a small subset of the Eastern Canada-West Greenland population of bowhead whales. This footage will help researchers fill in knowledge gaps about the biology and feeding strategies of bowhead whales. It is believed to be the first intensive effort to study bowhead whales with the use of an aerial drone.
Drones were used as they can provide an unprecedented opportunity to study bowhead whales in a non-invasive way. This technology allows for a bird’s-eye view of the whales, which provides:
- Better estimates of population size, trend and structure (number of males, females, calves);
- More accurate estimations of the size and body condition of individual whales (including the amount of fat the whales have accumulated);
- The ability to catalogue scars and unique markings to track the same whales over a long period of time, thereby improving data on growth and reproductive rates, and body condition.
The project involved:
- LGL Limited which provided leading bowhead whale biologist Bill Koski, who developed the project and participated in the fieldwork. Mr. Koski said, “The details we can see in these drone photos, you cannot get that from airplanes. By getting down so close, and getting the resolution we can get with drones, it gives you a new perspective on the whales. The ability to observe whales for a longer period increases our knowledge of the whales at individual and population levels. As drone technology develops, the possibilities are huge. As battery length and range improves, unprecedented insights in whale behaviours will be possible.”
- The University of British Columbia co-ordinated the logistics of the fieldwork.
- VDOS Global provided the aerial drone and operator.
- Fisheries and Oceans Canada provided funds, expertise and equipment.
- WWF-Canada provided funding through the Arctic Species Conservation Fund and participated in this fieldwork.
Brandon Laforest with WWF-Canada senior specialist, Arctic species Ecosystems, said, “Drone studies represent a noninvasive and visually stunning way of furthering our understanding of the ecology of the species. By being able to identify individual whales, we can learn more about growth patterns and reproductive outputs, and monitor this population as climate change continues to alter the Arctic marine habitat.”
Here is the video, republished with permission.