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In Australia We Start With Precautionary Measures
In July 2015 I woke up in the most remote city in the world - Perth, Western Australia. I was thrilled to join my first drone research study with Dr. Fredrik Christiansen, a large whale researcher at Murdoch University. From Perth, I knew I had another 2.5 hour plane flight before arriving in Exmouth, WA and had already traveled halfway across the world. I was ready to see the red earth from the air and meet my Australian colleagues that I had been skyping with for the past year while conducting my own ecotourism research at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
Just two weeks prior to arriving in Exmouth, I had reached out to Fredrik to ask him what he was researching. He mentioned humpback whales in their reproductive area and drones - I quickly responded “Would you like some help?” and he said “Yes be here in two weeks.”
There I was packing up my apartment in San Diego, CA after finishing my Master’s degree and ready to take off to Australia on what I can officially say now was the start of my future career in drones.
When I arrived in Exmouth, Fredrik explained the methods of collecting body condition photographs using drones. We would go out on a small boat where we would launch a splash drone after we located humpback whales. Preferably we looked for mother and calf pairs that were logging or resting at the surface. In the Exmouth Gulf, female humpback whales bring their calves into the protective water to get away from killer whales, nurse their calf, and allow time for the calf to grow stronger before returning to Antarctica where they forage on krill for the summer months.
Over the winter months female whales will give birth and nurse a calf, and amazingly they do not eat while doing this. They lose massive amounts of body fat while nursing and swimming their calves. Fredrik’s research observed how much fat a female whales loses over the winter months spent in the reproductive area and how big the calf grows over the same time period. By measuring individual whales we can determine population health, and relate it back to their foraging grounds and the future success of the calf. When a mother has sufficient fat reserves she not only provides sufficient resources for her calf, but she provides a window into the availability and health of her prey source - krill in Antarctica.
Not only is this research an innovative use of technology, but the methods for using precaution methods and reducing impacts to the whales were integrated at each step. Precautionary measures are careful actions you take in advance for example, putting on sunblock before you go to the beach.
To this point in my experience working on cetacean projects I had not worked on a project that was more dedicated and concerned with reducing impacts to the animals than collecting the data. Had I not been a part of this project, I would have continued to view marine mammal research as a right of the researcher under the permission of a research permit to disturb the animals, not the opportunity to research animals without causing disturbance. This is not to say that as researcher we actively seek to disturb animals, ideally I believe all researchers want to observe animals in nature and acting naturally. I am only commenting on the implementation of precautionary measures as it applies to my previous experience in the field and not reflecting in general on marine mammal scientists worldwide.
"Environmental scientists play a key role in society's responses to environmental problems, and many of the studies they perform are intended ultimately to affect policy. The precautionary principle, proposed as a new guideline in environmental decision making, has four central components: taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making." (Kriebel et al., 2001)
Precautionary measures can be built into a permit.
When deciding to fly over individual whales we first had to know who the individuals were and if we had flown over them in the previous three days. Per the research permit we were only allowed to fly over individual once every three days. This allowed the whales opportunity to bond with their calves and reduce cumulative impacts caused by daily interactions.
Precautionary measures can be implemented at any stage of the project.
1. Take your time.
Prior to taking flight we spent approximately 10-20 minutes deciding if we should fly over the whale(s).
Some of the considerations before operating a drone over a whale included:
2. Flight operations.
Whales tend to dive for long periods of time, so once we decided to take flight sometimes they would leave the area. Other times whales would stick around for a flight or would continue to log or rest without seeming to acknowledge that our boat was close by.
At the end of every drone flight there is an alarm indicating the battery is low. One time the battery ran low and after collecting the drone from the water we parted ways with a group of male humpbacks fighting each other for reproductive rights (I imagine). As we were preparing for the next flight and had made some significant distance (so we thought from the whales) we found them charging our way. We had to make way again to increase our distance, and it appeared that as we tried to cautiously part ways with this group, perhaps they had included us in this reproductive war. It was at this time we had to stop our field operation and move along beyond the territory of these rambunctious males.
Understand the behavior before, during, and after a flight is important for the safety of the whales and researchers. A situation can quickly change in 10-20 minute flight.
3. Boat engines are loud.
A recent study showed that humpback calves whisper to their mothers. It is important that the engine is in neutral if the whales are swimming near the boat.
In one scenario we were repairing gear and shut off the boat. Suddenly a juvenile humpback swam under and around the boat. It spy hopped right next to us and once the drone was operational the whale had swam off and we never located the individual.
These are my personal observations and experiences from using a drone from a boat. UAVs are being used around the world for cetacean research. In Australia in 2015, 2016, and 2017 Murdoch University has used UAVs to measure body condition of cow/calf pairs in both humpback whales off the coast of Western Australia and southern right whales in South Australia. In these studies and like many others, drones are reducing the carbon, anthropogenic, and acoustic footprint of the research team; and minimizing the risk to humans that manned aircraft surveys poise.
As a result of working with Fredrik in 2015 and 2016, I decided to create the Marine Wildlife UAS Task Force. The Task Force is developing best practices for UAS flights over marine wildlife. Our group is comprised of scientists, universities, government, organizations, and commercial industries that operate in and around marine wildlife. There are a few guideline documents to reduce impacts to wildlife in the marine environment.
Implementing best practices for flying drones in marine habitats includes education and outreach and this is where individual commercial and recreational pilots can take advantage of the best practices created by the Marine Wildlife UAS Task Force and provided in the ECO-Drone program.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has also published best practices for recreational drone pilots.
Kriebel D, Tickner J, Epstein P, et al. The precautionary principle in environmental science. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2001;109(9):871-876.