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Drone Captures Rare Whale Behavior

March 9, 2016

Marine mammals can benefit from UAVs
An unmanned aerial vehicle captured a humpback whale with its tail out of the water, using it like a sail to catch the wind. This might sound normal, but it’s actually quite rare.

The above video, filmed during a February field operation by the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries' Collaborative Center for Unmanned Technologies, shows a humpback mother and calf swimming and diving in a sanctuary off Maui’s leeward coast, according to a press release.  The mother can be seen doing a headstand, while her tail sits atop the water.

"We're not entirely sure why the whales do this," said Ed Lyman, resource protection specialist for Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS). "But we think this could be another way for them to rest, nurse, or just try to stay cool. More observations will be needed to confirm this theory."

For two weeks, scientists tested whether or not small UAVs can be used for future whale research and disentanglement efforts in the sanctuary. The study was deemed a success.
An unmanned aerial vehicle (visible above and to the left of the whale) captures footage of a humpback whale being observed by NOAA research vessel.
J. Smith/NOAA MMHSRP
Scientists believe drone technology has many uses in marine mammal work, and can provide a safe, cost-effective, low-impact way to assess, document, and collect biological samples such as whale blow – the spray emitted from a whale’s blowhole that is difficult to collect through traditional methods.

UAVs can also help marine mammals get out of nets, mooring gear, marine debris, and other detritus that may cause them to become entangled. According to the HIHWNMS website, the Hawaiian Islands Disentanglement Network has removed about 8,000 feet of line from 20 whales. Drones can make this easier for both the network and the animal.

"The typical boat-based close approaches needed to assess an entangled whale can be very challenging and dangerous," Lyman said. "Animals may become more evasive or aggressive."
A UAV is launched to aid in NOAA research with humpback whales.
J. Smith/NOAA MMHSRP
Michael Moore, director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Marine Mammal Center and advocate for use of drones for whale research and response, believes cooperation among regulators and users is important.

“Everyone from state and federal managers and regulators to the end users will need to continue working together to evaluate the efficacy and pursue the appropriate use of UAS platforms as extremely valuable tools,” he said.

Head to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary website for more information.