Australia’s new drone whale monitoring program is delivering breathtaking results

drone whale monitoring

When a critically endangered southern right whale swam into a lake in Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) last month, it was a local drone photographer who was on hand to snag some spectacular footage of the majestic creature. And just last week, a mom and newborn calf whales were caught breaching on camera by a drone pilot off Jervis Bay.

Photos and videos like these are not something that marine scientists are able to access very often. This is why biologists at the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) are absolutely gung-ho about a new research project that rallies citizen scientists to capture headshots whenever a right whale is spotted close to the shore.

Why headshots? Because right whales are born with distinctive hardened skin patterns on their heads called callosities. Think of them like whale fingerprints; they can help to individually identify the whales.

Network of citizen scientists for drone whale monitoring

Right now, the Right Whale ID project has about 20 volunteer drone pilots spread across the NSW coast. These drone pilots are well-versed in both animal protection laws and civil aviation regulations. So much so, before being recruited to the program, these volunteers sit for an exam and answer a series of questions about the behavior of the whales they film.

It’s worth noting that the southeastern Australian population of the southern right whale is highly endangered, with only 270 individuals left. Of these, only 68 are breeding females. Typically, as few as 25 to 30 southern right whales enter NSW waters every year.

This year, the Right Whale ID project has already recorded five adult whales and two calves. And that, as the marine wildlife team leader with the NPWS, Susan Crocetti, tells The Guardian, is a great beginning:

What we’re hoping is we might start to detect locations where southern right whales are being seen repeatedly so that we can put in place management options to protect those locations. We want to help southern right whales recover because they’re an important part of the whole system.

One of the early findings for the scientists is that the whales use NSW bays and estuaries as a kind of “preschool” where mom whales teach their calves to breach and feed before heading off to Antarctica for the summer.

NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean was particularly pleased to see the drone footage of the mom and calf whale basking and breaching in the warm, safe, shallow waters of the Jervis Bay. Calling the new drone whale monitoring program a success, Kean says:

The more we learn about these precious, majestic, and endangered animals the better we can plan to protect them.

Photo: NPWS

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