Observing humpback whales through the clear New Caledonian waters

Solène Derville, Entropie Lab, French National Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD – UMR Entropie), Nouméa, New Caledonia

Ph.D. student under the co-supervision of Dr. Leigh Torres

Drone technology has illustrated itself as particularly useful to the study of cetacean in the GEMM Lab (see previous post by Dawn and Leila) and in the marine mammal research community in general. The last Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Halifax staged several talks and posters describing the great potential of drones for observing animal behaviors, collecting blow samples, estimating the size and health of animals, or estimating densities. The GEMM Lab has been conducting leading research in this field, from capturing exceptional footages of lunge feeding blue whales in New Zealand, to measuring gray whale health on the Oregon coast.

Using drones in New Caledonia

In September 2017 I participated in a scientific cruise undertaken by Opération Cétacés /IRD to study New Caledonian humpback whales, and we were lucky to be joined by Nicolas Job, a professional diver, photographer and drone pilot. It was one of those last minute decisions: one of our crewmates canceled the week before the survey and we thought “who could we bring on instead?”. We barely knew the man but figured it would be good to get a few humpback whale drone images… We invited him to join us on the research expedition only a few days before the trip but this is not the kind of opportunity that a photographer would pass on!

Far from trying to acquire scientific data in the way the GEMM Lab does with blue whales and gray whales, we were only hoping to take “pretty pictures”… we were not disappointed.

Once we got past a few unexpected issues (YES you need to wear gloves to protect your fingers when trying to catch a flying drone (Fig 1), and NO frigate birds will not attack drones as long as they don’t smell like fish), Nicolas managed to fly the drone above our small research boat and capture footage of several humpback whale groups, including mothers with calf and competitive groups.

Figure 1: Frigate birds are known to attack birds in flight to steal their meal straight from their beak…luckily they did not attack our drone! On the contrary, it seems like they could help scientists one day as it has been suggested that UAV builders could learn from their exceptional soaring behavior that allows months-long transoceanic flights (photo credit: Henri Zemerskirch CEBC CNRS) .

As I said, no groundbreaking science here, but this experience convinced me that drones can bring a new perspective to the way we observe and interpret animal behavior. As a known statistics/R-lover in the lab, I often get so excited by the intricacies of data analysis that I forget I am studying these giant, elegant, agile, and intelligent sea creatures (Fig 2). And the video clips that Nicolas put together just reminded me of that.

The clear waters of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea allowed us to see whales as far as 30 meters deep in some areas! This perspective turned our usual surface observations into 3D. We could see escorts guarding maternal females and preventing other males from approaching by producing bubble trails. Escorts also extended their pectoral fins on either side of their body, a behavior supposed to make them look more imposing in the presence of a challenger. Competitive groups were also very impressive from above. During the breeding season, competitive groups form when several males aggregate around a female and compete for it. These groups typically travel at high speed and are characterized by active surface behaviors such as tail slaps, head lunges, and bubble trails.

Figure 2: This female humpback whale was encountered in 2016 and 2017. Her white flanks make her particularly easy to recognize. On both occasions it put on a show and kept circling the Amborella oceanographic vessel for more than an hour. To provide a sense of scale, the vessel on this drone footage is 24 m long (photo credit: Nicolas Job).

Drones and seamounts

Since the discovery of humpback whale offshore breeding areas in Antigonia seamount in 2007 and Orne bank in 2016, a lot of research has been conducted to better understand habitat preferences, distributions and connectivity in oceanic waters of New Caledonia (see previous post). Surveys have always been strongly multidisciplinary, including boat-based observation, biopsy sampling, and photo-identification, satellite tracking, in situ oceanographic measurements and acoustics. Will drones soon become an essential component of this toolbox?

One potential application I could imagine for my personal research questions would be to use aerial photogrammetry to measure the size of newborn calves. Indeed, we have found that offshore seamounts are used by a relatively great number of mothers with calf (Derville, Torres & Garrigue, In Press JMAMM). This finding is counter intuitive to the paradigm that maternal females prefer sheltered, shallow and coastal waters as shown in many breeding grounds around the world. Yet, we believe unsheltered oceanic areas might become more attractive to maternal females as the calf grows bigger and more robust to harsh sea states and encounters with competitive adult males. Drone photogrammetry of calves could likely help us confirm this hypothesis.

But for now, I will leave the science behind for a bit and let you enjoy the sheer beauty of this footage!

Film directed by Nicolas Job (Heos Marine) with images collected during the MARACAS3 survey (Marine Mammals of the Coral Sea: IRD/ UMR Entropie/Opération Cétacés/ Gouv.nc/ WWF/ Ministère de la Transition écologique et solidaire).

How Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, aka “drones”) are being applied in conservation research

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU


Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as “drones”, have been increasingly used in many diverse areas. Concerning field research, the use of drones has brought about reduced errors, increased safety and survey efforts, among other benefits, as described in a previous blog post of mine.

Several study groups around the world have been applying this new technology to a great variety of research applications, aiding in the conservation of certain areas and their respective fauna and flora. Examples of these studies include forest monitoring and tree cover analyses, .

Using drones for forest monitoring and tree cover analyses allows for many applications, such as biodiversity and tree height monitoring, forest classification and inventory, and plant disease and detection. The Ugalla Primate Project, for example, performed an interesting study on tree coverage mapping in western Tanzania (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Tree coverage analyses in Tanzania.
Source: Conservation Drones, 2016.


The access to this data (not possible before from the ground) and the acquired knowledge on tree density and structure were important to better understand how wild primates exploit a mosaic landscape. Here is a video about this project:


Forest restoration activities can also be monitored by drones. Rainforests around the world have been depleted through deforestation, partly to open up space for agriculture. To meet conservation goals, large areas are being restored to rainforests today (Elsevier 2015). It is important to monitor the success of the forest regeneration and to ensure that the inspected area is being replenished with the right vegetation. Since inspection events can be costly, labor intensive and time consuming, drones can facilitate these procedures, making the monitoring process more feasible.

Zahawi et al. (2015) conducted an interesting study in Costa Rica, being able to keep up with the success of the forest regeneration. They were also able to spot many fruit-eating birds important for forest regeneration (eg. mountain thrush, black guan and sooty-capped bush tanager). Researchers concluded that the automation of the process lead to equally accurate results.

Drones can also be used to inspect areas for illegal logging and habitat destruction. Conservationists have struggled to identify illegal activities, and the use of drones can accelerate the identification process of these activities and help to monitor their spread and ensure that they do not intersect with protected areas.

The Amazon Basin Conservation Association Los Amigos conservancy concession (LACC) has been monitoring 145,000 hectars of the local conservation area. Illegal gold mining and logging activities were identified (Figure 2) and drones have aided in tracking the spread of these activities and the progress of reforestation efforts.

Figure 2: Identification of illegal activities in the Amazon Basin.
Source: NPR, 2015.


Another remarkable project was held in Mexico, in one of the most important sites for monarch butterflies in the country: the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Around 10 hectars of vital trees were cut down in the reserve during 2013-2015, and a great decrease of the monarch population was perceived. The reserve did not allow researchers to enter in the area for inspection due to safety concerns. Therefore, drones were used and were able to reveal the illegal logging activity (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Identification of illegal logging at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Mexico.
Source: Take Part, 2016.


Regarding the use of drones for mapping vulnerable areas, this new technology can be used to map potential exposed areas to avoid catastrophes. Concerning responses to fires or other natural disasters, drones can fly immediately, while planes and helicopters require a certain time. The drone material also allows for operating successfully under challenging conditions such as rain, snow and high temperatures, as in the case of fires. Data can be assessed in real time, with no need to have firefighters or other personnel at a dangerous location anymore. Drones can now fulfill this role. Examples of drone applications in this regard are the detection, monitoring and support for catastrophes such as landslides, tsunamis, ship collisions, volcanic eruptions, nuclear accidents, fire scenes, flooding, storms and hurricanes, and rescue of people and wildlife at risk. In addition, the use of a thermal image camera can better assist in rescue operations.

Researchers from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) are developing a system to detect forest fires by using a color index (Cruz et al. 2016). This index is based on vegetation classification techniques that have been adapted to detect different tonalities for flames and smoke (Figure 4). This new technique would result in more cost-effective outcomes than conventional systems (eg. helicopters, satellites) and in reaching inaccessible locations.

Figure 4: Fire detection with Forest Fire Detection Index (FFDI) in different scenes.
Source: UPM, 2016.


Marine debris detection by drones is another great functionality. The right localization and the extent of the problem can be detected through drone footage, and action plans for clean-ups can be developed.

A research conducted by the Duke University Marine Lab has been detecting marine debris on beaches around the world. They indicate that marine debris impacts water quality, and harms wildlife (eg. whales, sea birds, seals and sea turtles) that might confuse floating plastic with food. You can read a bit more about their research and its importance for conservation ends here.

Drones are also being extensively used for wildlife monitoring. Through drone footage, researchers around the world have been able to detect and map wildlife and habitat use, estimate densities and evaluate population status, detect rare behaviors, combat poaching, among others. One of the main benefits of using a drone instead of using helicopters or airplanes, or having researchers in the area, is the lower disturbance it may cause on wildlife.

A research team from Monash University is using drones for seabird monitoring in remote islands in northwestern Australia (Figure 5). After some tests, researchers were able to detect which altitude (~75 meters) the drone would not cause any disturbances to the birds. Results achieved by projects like this should be used in the future for approaching the species safely.

Figure 5: Photograph taken by a drone of a crested tern colony on a remote island in Australia.
Source: Conservation Drones, 2014.


Drones are also being used to combat elephant and rhino poaching in Africa. They are being implemented to predict, trace, track and catch suspects of poaching. The aim is to reduce the number of animals being killed for the detusking and dehorning practices and the illegal trade. You can read more about this theme here. The drone application on combating one of these illegal practices is also shown here in this video.

As if the innovation of this device alone was not enough, drones are also being used to load other tools. A good example is the collection of whale breath samples by attaching Petri dishes or sterile sponges in the basal part of the drones.

The collection of lung samples allows many health-monitoring applications, such as the analysis of virus and bacteria loads, DNA, hormones, and the detection of environmental toxins in their organisms. This non-invasive physiological tool, known as “Snotbot”, allows sampling collection without approaching closely the individuals and with minimal or no disturbance of the animals. The following video better describes about this amazing project:

It is inspiring to look at all of these wonderful applications of drones in conservation research. Our GEMM Lab team is already applying this great tool in the field and is hoping to support the conservation of wildlife.




Conservation Drones. 2014. Conservation Drones for Seabird Monitoring. Available at: https://conservationdrones.org/2014/05/05/conservation-drones-for-seabird-monitoring/

Conservation Drones. 2016. Tree cover analyses in Tanzania in collaboration with Envirodrone. Available at: https://conservationdrones.org/2016/09/17/tree-cover-analyses-in-tanzania-in-collaboration-with-envirodrone/

Cruz H, Eckert M, Meneses J and Martínez JF. 2016. Efficient Forest Fire Detection Index for Application in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs). Sensors 16(893):1-16.

Elsevier. 2015. Drones Could Make Forest Conservation Monitoring Significantly Cheaper: new study published in the Biological Conservation wins Elsevier’s Atlas award for September 2015. Available at: https://www.elsevier.com/about/press-releases/research-and-journals/drones-could-make-forest-conservation-monitoring significantly-cheaper

NPR. 2015. Eyes In The Sky: Foam Drones Keep Watch On Rain Forest Trees. Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/05/19/398765759/eyes-in-the-sky-styrofoam-drones-keep-watch-on-rainforest-trees

Take Part. 2016. Drones Uncover Illegal Logging in Critical Monarch Butterfly Reserve. Available at: http://www.takepart.com/article/2016/06/22/drones-uncover-illegal-logging-monarch-butterfly-habitat

UPM. 2016. New automatic forest fire detection system by using surveillance drones. Available at: http://www.upm.es/internacional/UPM/UPM_Channel/News/dc52fff26abf7510VgnVCM10000009c7648aRCRD

Zahawi RA, Dandois JP, Holl KD, Nadwodny D, Reid JL and Ellis EC. 2015. Using lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor tropical forest recovery. Biological Conservation 186:287–295.