Videotaping whales with drones is catching on, but process can be difficult and costly

Videotaping whales with drones is catching on
Videotaping whales with drones is catching on.

Small, battery-powered drones used to videotape whales and dolphins from the sky are producing some breathtaking footage of the mammals, but the relatively new devices are somewhat controversial and require a steep learning curve to master.

David Anderson of Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari has uploaded a 5-minute video showing spectacular aerial views of an enormous pod of dolphins, migrating gray whales, and a humpback whale mother and calf.

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“This is the most beautiful and compelling five-minute video I have ever put together,” he states in the video description. “I learned so much about these whales and dolphins from this drone footage that it feels like I have entered a new dimension!”

However, there’s a back story that involves the loss of one $1,700 quadcopter drone-and-camera rig, and Anderson jumping into the frigid Pacific fully clothed, trying to unsuccessfully grab the sinking device.

The quadcopter clipped the boat’s antenna during the launch, and crashed into the water. Anderson, who was alone six miles offshore, was hoping to save not only the device, but also footage it had captured earlier in the day.

Videotaping whales with drones is catching on.
Videotaping whales with drones is catching on.

“I had my hat and glasses on; I was fully clothed with long-johns on to keep warm and my cellphone and wallet in my pocket,” Anderson explains. “It was a stupid move, but the copter started sinking so fast it was my only hope to get the amazing footage I had just shot.”

He has since outfitted the rig with flotation stilts.

The dolphin and gray whale footage was captured off Dana Point and San Clemente in Southern California. The humpback whale footage was captured off Maui, Hawaii.

Videotaping whales with drones is catching on.
Videotaping whales with drones is catching on.

Anderson’s close competitor, Dana Wharf Whale Watching, made headlines a month ago with quadcopter footage of a 70-foot fin whale, captured by Captain Frank Brennan. Dana Wharf became the first Southern California whale-watching outfit to post drone-captured whale footage that was widely circulated on the Web.

It’s worth noting that these quadcopter drones are about the size of model helicopters and weigh only a few pounds. They’re battery-operated and make less noise than the boats they’re launched from.

NOAA has not published guidelines specific to drones, but cautions that whales and dolphins are protected animals and it’s illegal to do anything that could be perceived as harassment.

Said Anderson: “There is debate in many states right now about making use of these drones illegal. People are justifiably concerned about invasion of privacy. But it would be a shame to have this new window into a whale’s world taken away.”

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