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How Drones Will Change Whale Watching

The technology offers unprecedented views for oceanic research, but calls into question what effect, if any, drones have on sensitive cetaceans.

by Brian Anderson
Jan 30 2014, 5:31pm

Take a look at this 70-foot fin whale gliding off the coast of Orange County. Beautiful, right? Haunting, even. 

The footage was shot with a small quadcopter, and comes by way of Dana Point Whale Watch. The clip description plays up "a new perspective that is totally unique." There's no arguing that: We've never seen whales (or moose or coyotes, and so on) like we see them today. Small-fry drone technology offers unprecedented views for oceanic research and whale watching.

But with still no definitive rules governing the use of drones for maritime photography—a legal grey area that the FAA isn't anywhere close to clearing up—their increasing use calls into question what, if any, effects unmanned aerial systems might have on sensitive cetaceans like this federally endangered fin. 

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration guidelines say that California whale-watching boats should "always attempt" to steer 100 yards clear of cetaceans. But then that's only a suggestion. If you're looking to monitor whales from a helicopter or plane and don't have a research permit, you'll have to adhere to current regulations that say manned aircraft should dip no lower than 1,000 feet above the creatures. Should we hold drones to the same standard?

What we know is that the DJI Phantom drone used by Dana Point Whale Watch hovered 50 feet above the lone beast. That appears to be the same height that drone hobbyists in Norway recently spun up a small quadcopter to catch remarkable footage of two curious orcas checking out some kayakers. 

In both cases, the noise emitted from the drones, which are little more than RC planes, is negligible compared to basically any manned aircraft. Then again, the fact that small drones are relatively quiet could be what finds operators getting a bit over-confident and inching too close to whales. Any whirring or signal relays from a drone might in fact become more of a harassment than a plane flying at, say 400 feet over a lone leviathan.

The promise here for our understanding of the ocean's biggest creatures is huge. But for now, we'd do well to keep the buzz to a minimum.