Drones and Whales

  • © GREMM
    30 / 06 / 2016 Par Béatrice Riché

    Recently, whale-watching guides and companies have expressed concerns about drones flying near killer whales off the west coasts of Canada and the United States. Drones are increasingly popular. But should they be approaching whales?

    “It’s a real threat – drones are not non-invasive,” says Michael Harris, Executive Director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. Whale-watching guides have reported the presence of drones flying “too close” to whales, particularly southern resident killer whales, the population of which is endangered. According to them, drones flying at low altitude are loud and amateur pilots may unintentionally strike whales.

    According to Michael Harris, “he only place for drones around marine mammals is for research.”

    Appropriate and Safe Use

    Capture d’écran 2015-11-10 à 16.19.53Drones provide a unique view of wildlife and landscapes. They are also a promising tool for researchers and emergency responders in the marine environment, as they can gather important information on marine mammals. Drones can thus contribute to species conservation. The use of drones as part of studies on southern resident killer whales and St. Lawrence belugas clearly demonstrates the potential of this tool. Moreover, drones have helped capture never-before-seen behaviour, including a feeding Bryde’s whale and a blue whale nursing her young – images that have recently gone viral on the social networks.

    However, when drones are not used safely, appropriately and responsibly, they can become a source of disturbance to wildlife. By disrupting essential activities such as migration, reproduction, feeding or resting, sources of disturbance may have significant effects on animals’ health and physical condition. It is therefore important to follow the rules and safety guidelines for the use of drones.

    Rules and Guidelines

    In Canada, according to Transport Canada safety guidelines, recreational drones shall not approach within 150 metres of animals. Researchers can apply for special permits to fly closer. In the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, drones must not fly lower than 2000 feet (609.6 m) above the water surface.

    In the US, federal guidelines recommend maintaining a safe flying distance of at least 1,000 feet (304.8 m) from marine mammals. The US Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 provides additional protection for threatened or endangered marine mammals. For example, federal regulations prohibit approaching humpback whales in Hawaii within 1,000 feet (304.8 m) by air and North Atlantic right whales within 1,500 feet (457.2 m). Additionally, the use of drones was recently banned within the US national park network.



    Vancouver Sun: Drones becoming ‘a real threat’ to B.C.’s whales, say tour operators

    Transport Canada: Drone Safety

    Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park: Marine Activities in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park Regulations

    NOAA: Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Responsible Use to Help Protect Marine Mammals 


    To learn more:

    On Whales Online:

    As the Crow Flies: Drones as a Promising Research Tool

    Drones and 3D Images for Whale Research and Conservation (in French)

    Drones for Marine Mammmal Research and Conservation: A Revolutionary Technique? (in French)