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Video: Drones capture up-close-and-personal view of bowhead whales in Canada’s Arctic

Scientists at UBC say using drones to capture whale behaviour is less invasive, cheaper and allows them to observe the whales in real time

Two bowhead whales captured by a drone camera in Canada's eastern Arctic

Courtesy VDOS Global LLC

Two bowhead whales captured by a drone camera in Canada's eastern Arctic

Scientists at the University of British Columbia have used drones to get up close and personal with the mysterious bowhead whale in Canada’s Arctic.

"We operate on a 6 metre boat, and it can get into some pretty tight places but believe it or not it can’t get to some of the locations where the whales are,” said researcher Sarah Fortune.

“The behaviour of the animals in some of these complex environments have been unknown until just recently.”

The bird’s-eye-view footage captures the whales — the longest-living mammals in the world — swimming, eating and socializing with each other, with the clear water of Cumberland Sound providing a good view of the whales even when they are submerged. It gives researchers a look at the entire animal, rather than just observing a tip of a tail or the top of a head from a boat, Fortune said.

Drones have been used to capture footage of other types of whales, but bowhead whales are particularly hard to find and track because they live in remote areas of the Arctic. The scientists relied on local Inuit hunters and the Kilabuk family, who operate a guiding business, to help find the whales. The drones then followed the animals for several hours, giving the scientists a never-before-seen picture of how the whales behave.

WWF

Courtesy VDOS Global LLC

WWF

“It is common to find small groups of whales traveling together, but we hadn’t observed how often they swim in coordinated patterns, constantly touching or rubbing one another,” Fortune said. “The team was also able to watch the whales’ daily activity patterns and found that they spent the early morning feeding in deep water and then rested, often in large groups, in shallow, coastal waters during the afternoon.”

The scientists say the video and photographs taken by the drone operator will help them monitor the number of whales, age of the whales and health of the animals. The whales currently eat a high-protein type of zooplankton that is found in the cold Arctic ocean waters, but as climate change leads to warmer water temperatures in the Arctic, bowhead whales may have to turn to a lower-protein type of food that is more common in warmer waters.

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