Drone video captures humpback whales in rare Aussie-water ‘heat run’

drone video humpback whale

One of the most common knocks against the rising number of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAV) in the skies are the threats to privacy the camera-packing craft pose. Last week provided an unexpected (and, it must be said, non-protested) example of such aerial peeping when a drone videoed an enormous group of male humpback whales battling each other for the right to mate with the only female among them.

Researchers in Australia got their voyeuristic craft aloft after sighting an expanding group of whales thrashing about off the city of Gold Coast 50 miles south of Brisbane. Their drone not only captured video of the humpback mating ritual known as a “heat run” underway – a rarity in Aussie waters. It also documented an unprecedented number of whales fighting for the prize of reproducing with the female whose presence had sent them bonkers. Last week’s airborne peek at the creatures’ pugilistic foreplay involved an astonishing 16 whales – far larger than the usual groups of four to six, and even surpassing what had previously been the biggest melee ever seen involving 13 rivals.

Human clashes of rival suitors may escalate into chest poking, shoulder shoving, or – for those who happen to live in Bridget Jones movies – embarrassing fights in restaurants or fountains. Even the most rugged of those, however, pale beside a bust-up between 16 27.5-ton whales bashing each other at speeds of 16 mph. Collisions are hard enough to knock flesh from opponents. And when brute strength and violence isn’t enough, contenders will resort to underhanded ruses like blowing air at foes to blind them.

“They are obviously quite competitive; they’ll basically push each other out of the way,” Olaf Meynecke, a marine science research fellow at Griffith University told Australia’s ABC news site after his drone videoed the record-setting humpback whale free-for-all. “At that very point when it was really intense, we had so much skin in the water it was like a whale skin soup.”

Romantic and yummy, too.

Bumper crop of exceptional whale activity videoed by drone off Australia

This year has featured UAVs filming some remarkable, when not extraordinary whale activity off eastern Australia as the mammals have undertaken their annual migrations. The aerial footage of the “heat run” was shot after what was initially described as a smaller group of whales picked up participants as it progressed.

According to Meynecke, brawling participants could be heard “talking to each other” – insert your favorite humpback obscenity here – and eventually attracted a group of dolphins entertained by all the spectator-pleasing smashing and pain. Meynecke said the drone was instrumental in recording the massive “heat run” with minimal risk to non-combatants.

“These animals are aggressive to each other, but they also don’t pay any attention to their surroundings, so driving with a boat in the middle of it is not a very good idea,” he noted.

So who won the heart (and other bits) of the Bachelorette central to the martial form of seduction? That detail will never be known – and not because drone pilots videoing the mating ritual were worried about protecting humpback whale privacy to film the winner claiming his reproductive prize. 

It turns out, one of the harsher realities of “heat runs” is the female whale may snub the winning fighter in favor of a more attractive loser once the hubbub dies down – or decide to shun the entire mob of thuggish Romeos altogether.

“She ultimately decides who she wants to mate with,” Meynecke says, proving all really is (un)fair in love and war. “Unless there is co-operation between two partners, there will be no mating happening.”

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