The Big Blue Ocean Exploration

Is whale watching with drones next big trend?

Endangered fin whale is videotaped via unmanned aircraft off Southern California, raising questions and concerns about how this might affect the mammals

Whale watching with drones

Fin whale image is a video screen grab courtesy of Dana Wharf Whale Watching

Captain Frank Brennan on Tuesday uploaded a YouTube video showing an endangered fin whale, captured via drone from more than 50 feet above the surface off Dana Point, California.

The beautiful and unique footage was widely shared and questions immediately surfaced. Is whale watching with drones the next big trend? Is it appropriate, or even legal? Do the drones pose any danger to the protected mammals?

Brennan, who works for Dana Wharf Whale Watch, is believed to be the first employee of a California whale-watching operation to launch an unmanned drone to capture footage of a large cetacean. Given the fiercely competitive nature of the business, he won’t be the last. (At least one other Southern California whale-watching business has purchased a drone.)

That is, if regulations, whatever they may be, don’t end up grounding the small, battery-powered devices.

Whale watching with drones

Capt. Frank Brennan displays drone he used to videotape fin whale; photo by Gordon Gates

NOAA whale-watching guidelines suggest that boaters remain 100 yards from whales, but they’re only guidelines and it’s unclear whether drone guidelines have been drawn up. Airplanes and helicopters are supposed to stay at least 1,000 feet above cetaceans, but are toy-sized drones such as the one used by Brennan in the same category as noisy airplanes and helicopters?

Whales, dolphins, and sea lions are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Harassing marine mammals or altering their behavior in any way is illegal.

A NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman said Wednesday that the National Marine Fisheries Service is planning to discuss drone use among the general public in upcoming meetings, but that for now there are no guidelines “specific to the use of drones by the public to video/photograph marine mammals.”

Brennan is not the first person to capture whale footage via drone. Earlier this month off Norway, killer whales were filmed swimming around kayakers, via unmanned quad-copter (see bottom image).

But that was an isolated instance in Norway. Supposedly, there’s concern among NOAA officials that drone-based whale and dolphin photography will become more widespread in the United States.

Whale watching with drones

Image showing orcas swimming with kayakers is a video screen grab

Brennan practiced flying his quadcopter for weeks before launching it Monday from the 95-foot Dana Pride, and risking flight over the ocean. He said the device was never close to the whale and that he was “lucky” to have captured such clean footage of an estimated 70-foot fin whale as it leisurely stole breaths at the surface.

Time will tell whether the use of drones will, indeed, become widespread on commercial vessels for videotaping not only whales and dolphins, but sharks and other creatures. Time also will tell whether NOAA and the NMFS decide to regulate their use, at least where protected whales, dolphins, and sea lions are concerned.

For now, however, Frank Brennan is in possession of some very cool fin whale footage, and might soon be considered a trend setter.

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