By Ryan W. Neal
Using a small unmanned aircraft, Captain Frank Brennan was able to capture unprecedented footage of an endangered fin whale coming up to breathe off the coast of Dana Point, Calif. Hovering just 50 feet above the whale, the “Dana Wharf Copter Cam” captures a unique perspective of the creature's 70-foot long body.
While many whale-watching enthusiasts are thrilled with the footage, the use of drones to film marine wildlife has raised questions among environmental regulators. Is it legal to fly drones above the whales? Can drones harm or disturb the whales?
Whales are protected by both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, and it is illegal to harass a whale, which is defined as “an act of pursuit, torment or annoyance that has the potential to injure a whale or disrupt its natural behavior.”
While the drone doesn’t appear to bother the whale at all, there is always the possibility of the drone crashing into one of the creatures, either by mechanical error or a mistake by the operator. The video also captures the buzzing emitted by the drone, a Quad Copter, that could affect the whale’s sensitive hearing.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommends boats stay at least 100 yards away from whales to avoid disturbing them, but this is a safety guideline rather than a law. Airplanes and helicopters are supposed to stay at least 1,000 feet above whales, but it isn’t clear if this rule extends to tiny, unmanned craft like drones.
Using drones to photograph marine life is a growing trend. A drone captured footage of orca whales swimming near kayakers in Norway earlier this month, and other whale-watching businesses in Southern California are reportedly purchasing drones.
The National Marine Fisheries Service doesn’t currently have any guidelines pertaining to drones, but it is planning to discuss them in upcoming meetings.
Do you think the use of drones to photograph marine life should be regulated? Let us know in the comments. Video.