Drone Projects

Each year, we aim to expand the scale of our research operations.

As an organization, we continuously seek and incorporate novel research techniques and technologies to broaden the scope and depth of the ecological questions we pose, all with the goal of deepening our understanding and, thus, our ability to protect whales. In 2019 we launched our first drone-based projects, embracing this astounding and rapidly developing technology to study humpback and fin whales non-invasively from the air.

The introduction of drones has revolutionized our work. Today, we use drones as tools in our routine data collection efforts, both from the deck of the Fin Island Research Station and during marine surveys. Data gathered from each drone flight may contribute to our behavioral investigations, facilitate the non-invasive collection of whale DNA (Genetics Projects), assess whale health and body condition, and enhance our ability to understand and mitigate key threats to the recoveries of whale species at risk.

Focal Follows

Investigating Ship Strike Vulnerability and Looking in Depth at Whale Behaviour

Whales, being air-breathing mammals that spend the majority of their time below the surface of the water, are innately difficult to study. We are presented a small opportunity to capture a snapshot of the lives of whales when they break the surface of the water, or when they vocalize within range of our hydrophone networks and we can listen to understand where they are, and occasionally infer what they’re doing. 

These snapshots have historically been the limit in our ability to understand the intricacies of the daily lives and needs of whales, and has affected our ability to thoroughly address key conservation questions to appropriately advocate for effective protection measures.

Drones are expanding our capacity to investigate and comprehend whale behaviour through prolonged windows of observation, providing new perspectives and insights into behaviours we have observed for many years. As a drone in one of our first flights hovered overhead of a humpback whale, our team hovered around the screen that displayed in real time what the drone was observing.

What we saw was a whale engaged in what we now understand to be a “resting travel” behaviour state, whereby whales travel for an extended periods at relatively slow speeds just below the waters surface, remaining visible to observation through the drone but left completely vulnerable to a ship strike.

In partnership with the Gitga’at First Nation and WWF-Canada through the Ships, Whales, and Acoustics in Gitga’at Territory (SWAG) project, we designed and developed our drone focal follow study to further understand how whale behaviours relate to their ship strike vulnerabilities.

During drone focal follows, our drone pilots focus each flight on an individual or group of whales.

As the drone flies overhead, it collects high quality video paired directly with highly accurate GPS locations recorded every fraction of a second. This allows us to comprehensively pair fine-scale observations of whale behaviour with breath rates, swim speeds, precise habitat usage, and the proportion of time spent just below the surface—invisible to vessels and vulnerable to a ship strike—with the proportion of time spent visible above the surface and therefore potentially detectable by a vessel’s on-deck observer.

The information we can gather from drone focal follows is providing us with an incredible opportunity to better understand the risk of ship strikes to whales as they navigate their habitats along the BC coast and conduct the behaviours necessary to their survival.

Scar Analysis

Expanding our Understanding of Key Threats to Whales

In 2021, we launched the Scar Analysis project using non-invasive drone technology to address the threats of entanglement and ship-strikes directly.

Whales display a breadth of information and personal history through the scars on their bodies.

These scars tell a story of past interactions with symbiotic creatures like barnacles, predators like transient orca, and of instances where whales have survived two of the greatest threats to their survival: entanglement and ship strike.

Injured left fluke of a humpback whale BCX1592 “Tippy” taken September 8th 2022. Getting an overview of existing injuries belonging to the loyal whales of this area will help us monitor new injuries and each whales abilities to recover. (Photo: North Coast Cetacean Society 2022 ©)

Through rigorous analysis of images and videos of whales collected with our research drones since the scar project’s inception, we have developed methods for the classification and monitoring of ship strike and entanglement scar presence on the humpback and fin whales we encounter in northern British Columbia. From our scar analysis studies we have found that upwards of 47% of humpback whales in northern BC are survivors of entanglement. Though the true death rate and the extent of the impacts from ship strike and entanglement accidents remain unknown, we have come to recognize the importance of learning from the whales that have survived these impactful accidents to gain the best and most well-rounded understanding of the level of this threat to whales in BC.

Looking to each whale’s scars allows us the opportunity to truly begin to understand how often ship-strike and entanglement accidents occur, where they may be occuring, and what protection measures are still needed to limit the impacts of these threats.


Measuring Whale Body Conditions and Health

To complement all of our drone efforts, we attach a highly accurate LiDAR laser to our research drones for collecting extremely precise and reliable measurements of the body conditions of humpback and fin whales.

LiDAR lasers pulse regularly and record the length of time it takes for the laser pulse to bounce off a surface and return to the LiDAR device. The data from these pulses allow us to determine the exact height of the drone above the sea surface.

When combined with footage of the whales from directly above, this information enables us to calculate the size of each individual, both in length and width.

Both humpback and fin whales find key feeding habitat along the BC coast. By gathering and analyzing data collected through our LiDAR-equipped drones, we can examine the body conditions of both species to interpret individual and population-level health.

Drone pilot Éadin O’Mahony. (Photo: Janie Wray and the North Coast Cetacean Society 2019 ©)

For individuals observed multiple times throughout a feeding season, we may investigate the rate of fat store accumulation from successful foraging. This can be paired with visual observations of feeding strategies to build an understanding of which, if any, feeding strategies may be most efficient.

At a population level, by tracking the body conditions of many whales over multiple years, we may identify critical changes to prey quality or availability based on any significant deviations in the body conditions of whales from our baseline knowledge.