Conservation Multirotor

Drone Photography in Whale Research


Randy Jay Braun and Stacy Garlington

We have all seen fascinating aerial photographs of massive whales as they navigate through the waters of the world’s oceans. Since the release of the DJI Phantom quadcopter drone in 2013, humans have a completely capable and unexpected new tool to view and study such creatures in their natural marine habitats. A drone’s-eye-view of a whale is not only beautiful but scientifically insightful. Research teams from whale-rich corners of the planet are clambering to learn how small drones may provide data through photogrammetry.

Drone photography is now becoming a standard research procedure, allowing scientists to ask a whole range of new questions as they view their subjects from this new perspective.

What type of data will an off-the-shelf quadcopter drone provide to a researcher? Ask Dr. Rachel Cartwright, Dr Cartwright has been researching humpback whales for 15 years; she is the founder and lead researcher of the Keiki Kohola project, a local non-profit conservation group based in Maui, Hawaii and Rachel also teaches UAV and
other classes at California State University Channel Islands. She is at the forefront – successfully using drone technology as a tool for gathering whale data. The funny thing is, her trusty old Phantom 3 Pro is her drone of choice, and perhaps the least expensive tool in her arsenal. She uses the Phantom 3 for several reasons. It is simple to hand launch and retrieve from a small moving research boat. The lens has a wide field of view, allowing her to document a pod of several whales while flying at 100 feet. Finally, data collection over time requires consistent methodology. Cartwright has used the same size camera sensor and lens for three years now, allowing her to make consistent measurements from one season to the next.

Sixty percent of the Northern Pacific humpback whale population migrates to the warm waters of Maui, Hawaii during the winter months to mate and birth calves. Dr Cartwright, working under N.O.A.A. research permit #17845-3, is hoping to prove the importance and vitality of the waters around Maui, as a safe and secure nursery where mothers can raise their calves.

“Maui is really important as a place where the next generation of whales start, but there are indications that the quality of the area may have been impacted and the behaviour has changed. We can quantify those changes by looking at the body condition of the moms, and be documenting how that change over the course of time that they are in this area raising their calves.”

Precise measurements may be made by flying at predetermined altitudes, say 100 feet above a mother and calf  humpback as they break the surface of the water to breathe. Her research team uses measurements of the research vessel to convert pixel counts to real measurements of the whales’ body size and shape body size and shape.

“We are comparing the moms with young calves to the moms with older calves, and we can see a change in the body shape, and we can see how much change we get in that body shape, in different areas and in different regions. On top of that we can compare between years so that we can see if our average mom in 2018 is chubbier or slimmer than our mom in 2017 or 2016.”

At a recent whale symposium hosted by The Society of Marine Mammalogy, in
Nova Scotia, Canada,  where an international group of more than 1500 marine mammal researchers were gathered, the discussions about drones filled the air. There is a giddy new excitement as teams from Alaska to the Antarctic create new data collection methods using drones to help protect marine species.

“The Phantom drones have given us a whole new perspective. Phantoms have opened up a window into a way of looking down on the whale. We haven’t been able to measure living whales in the wild until this point. We tried underwater, but there is too much distortion, and the ones that we get stranding on beaches have died and their health has been impacted. This is our first chance to measure the length and sizes and monitor their health of living whales in real time.”

We all love whales, right? Follow Dr. Cartwright and her team for research updates.

All of this is yet another reason we refer to small DJI drones as a “disruptive technology”. The disruptions are positively affecting industries worldwide, meaning higher productivity, more versatility, increased efficiency, and safer methods.


Authors Randy Jay Braun and Stacy Garlington are co-founders of the DJI Aerial Photo Academy, providing live city-to-city workshops helping attendees to create better aerial drone photographs for work or for play. A current workshop schedule can be found at and on their facebook page. Sign up below if you want us to let you know when we are coming to your neighborhood.


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