Wednesday , December 13 2017
Home / News / Whale watching in the age of drones

Whale watching in the age of drones

Drones can take spectacular photos of whales and other marine life — or they can harass them to the point of distress.

To help drone operators observe animals without inadvertently harming them, Alicia Amerson founded the San Diego-based company AliMoSphere, which trains drone pilots to fly safely in marine environments.

She aims to provide guidance about drone flights in wildlife areas, in the absence of clear state or federal rules governing the practice.

“There’s no rule for flying drones over marine wildlife,” she said. “It’s very confusing and vague. There’s just a lot of gray space here. What we want to do, until we have regulations, we want to promote very conscious, safe and reliable flying.”

As whale-watching season approaches, more ship captains and private boat owners are deploying drones to view the animals. But the drones may confuse migrating whales, and disturb other marine life.

Drones flown over rookeries can provoke seals and sea lions to flush, crushing or abandoning pups, she said. Hovering too close to cliff-side nests, they can cause sea birds to flee their nests.

However, they can also be useful tools for scientific research and wildlife observation.

“One of the great things about this technology is it allows scientists to collect data in 30 minutes that would take a day to collect,” Amerson said.

Researchers with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts announced that they recently captured a sample of the exhalation from humpback whales’ blow using a hexacopter — a method less distressing for the animals than approaching in a boat. Other researchers use them for photographic surveys of the animals.

“I think there’s a major opportunity to get closer to wildlife to better understand them, to learn about them and to experience them through the use of these drones,” said Geoff Shester, California program manager for the conservation group Oceana, who has shot aerial photos of whales with drones. “But we want to make sure, before anyone promotes that, to do it responsibly.”

Amerson developed the idea for AliMoSphere to help drone pilots navigate those issues. The company provides a three-day pilot training session for drone operators working toward commercial licenses, as well as seminars on the use of drones in whale-watching cruises and conservation areas.

Amerson, 39, became interested in the issue while completing a master’s degree in marine conservation and biodiversity at Scripps Institution of Oceanograpy at UC San Diego. For her master’s thesis, she studied practices of whale-watching tours along the West Coast. During one of those cruises, she saw something peculiar on the water.

“I was on a boat, watching another boat watching a whale,” when she saw what appeared to be a strange bird hovering over the whale. “I thought, what a funny seagull – then I got my camera out and it was actually a drone, like a robotic seagull.”

That’s not uncommon said Christopher FitzSimmons, an education specialist for Birch Aquarium in La Jolla. Whale-watching season now extends nearly year round, as gray whales migrate earlier in the fall — sometimes as soon as mid-November — and boats seek other species such as humpback, blue, minke and fin whales at other times of year.

“We are seeing an increase in the use of drones with both private and commercial vessels,” he said. “There are concerns about safety, and there just isn’t enough information.”

Two years ago, Amerso completed a California Sea Grant fellowship as a resource consultant for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. In his office, she worked on a variety of projects concerning marine conservation and marine mammal safety. As part of that, she convened a marine wildlife task force for unmanned aerial systems, to establish best practices for flying drones in marine habitats.

“Right now, the best rule of thumb is just don’t fly over marine wildlife,” she said. “Just keep your distance. Don’t fly close, don’t fly overhead. Minimize your exposure time.”

Drone pilots should also understand air space regulations and seek information on sensitive areas and wildlife in the areas where they’re operating, she said. They should also maintain the same 100-yard distance that boats must observe near marine mammals. And pilots should educate themselves about air space regulations, and sensitive wildlife in areas where they operate.

“Plan ahead to reduce your impact to wildlife – what wildlife you may encounter and any flight restrictions, such as in a sanctuary,” Amerson said. “Reach out to (wildlife) experts… and ask them to identify key disturbance behavior. If you see (animals) acknowledging the drone, you should back off.”

[email protected] [email protected]


Article Source

About admin

Check Also

Drone stalking several women in rural Port Lincoln community part of growing list of UAV concerns

Updated November 02, 2017 18:25:42 Photo: One of the women who has seen the drone …

Govt issues draft rules for using drones in India

The aviation ministry had first issued guidelines for drones last year but they have not …