As you look to your left, huge shoals of silvery fish shoot past followed closely by a toothy predator. On your right, seabirds fill the air as a huge mouth opens and breaks the surface in an explosion of white foam. Dolphins surround your boat and you can hear their clicks and whistles as they leap excitedly through the waves. It is quite a challenge to keep up with everything as every time you look in a different direction, something else seems to appear out of nowhere. It’s frantic, busy and very exhilarating.
Our oceans are teeming with life and it goes without saying that in a world facing so many different threats, it is vital that we do what we can to monitor and protect it. But, with so much going on, how do marine scientists and conservationists manage to do so?
For many years, scientists have turned to the skies. In order to monitor population abundance and the distribution of different species, they have been conducting aerial surveys. By flying a team in a light aircraft across a set transect line with a specific height and speed, they note down the location and number of animals in a certain area. In doing so, they are then able to calculate how healthy a population is, determine the best habitat for them as well as understanding the best potential ways to conserve them. However, although incredibly useful, aerial surveys also have their drawbacks. There is, for example, the cost of using an aircraft and employing a team of at least 5 scientists as well as the time it takes to conduct each survey. The risk of human error in inputting the data is also possible problem. In such an active environment with the pressure of getting it right, is there a better way to monitor our marine life?
According to many scientists there is; their answer is drones.
In recent years there has been what seems like an exponential rise in the use and accessibility of drone technology both for recreational and for scientific use. From the cheaper options right up to the most expensive professional hexacopters, there really does appear to be a drone for everyone, including marine scientists and conservationists.
Many scientists believe that by using drones to conduct aerial surveys, they are able to tackle many of the problems facing traditional aerial surveys. They are not only able to eliminate the high cost, they are also able to rule out the potential risks human aerial teams face. A study conducted in 2003 highlighted that light aircraft crashes were the top killer of field scientists. By sending up a drone instead of a human, this risk is abolished.
As well as risk removal, drones are also better able to capture natural behaviour. Less intrusive than aircraft and perhaps even mistaken for birds, as a result they are more likely to be able to record more detailed and accurate data. So, drones seem like an ideal way to capture and record visual marine population data, but what else can they achieve?
Ocean Alliance, a not for profit conservation organisation, are not only using drones to collect aerial images of cetaceans, they are also collecting genetic information. They designed a drone called the “Snotbot” which is able to collect samples of the liquid exhaled through whales’ blowholes. With sample trays installed on the drone’s base, it is hovered above a surfacing whale and catches the spray. This is then used to learn more about the biological information of different species in different locations. Not only does this include their DNA, it also contains stress hormones, pregnancy hormones and microbiomes which can tell us a lot about the health of the species. To be able to capture such an insight into the lives of these whales would usually entail obtaining a blood sample. Having the opportunity to gather such information without causing the animals any of the stress that comes with conducting blood tests, is certainly a more practical and worthwhile method.
The information gathered by “Snotbot” is being used by Professor Scott Baker at Oregon State University who is adding it to the 35 years worth of identity, age, environmental issues and health data from 3,000 whales which he and his team has collected. He believes that by using drones to gather information in this way, we will be able to discover more about the impact humans have upon marine life and possibly even find out other ways in which humans affect different species.
Of course it is not just cetacean species that drones can be used to monitor; recent studies into shark populations have also utilised this technology. Researchers from the Florida International University have been using them to monitor shark and ray abundance and measure the impact these species are having upon tourism in the area via the use of high resolution video. By doing so, they have discovered more about the populations in previously difficult-to-access locations. Interestingly, they also found higher number of animals in certain areas than had previously been recorded using other more traditional methods demonstrating just how inaccurate these can be.
Drones have also been used by other charities and research organisations to further their knowledge and research. Gathering Arctic atmospheric data in order to help further understanding of how sea ice breaks and melts, studying nesting behaviours of Olive Ridley turtles in Costa Rica, tracking manatee populations and even to helping fight the issue of illegal fishing in Belize, this technology is becoming invaluable.
How is Sea Watch using drones to support their research?
In August 2015, Sea Watch received a grant from Environment Wales which allowed us to purchase some new equipment to help with our research and that included our drone “Shark Bait”. In the past, we have relied solely upon boat/ land based teams along with fin photography to identify individuals and behaviours within the local bottlenose dolphin, porpoise and seal populations. Whilst we have been able to build up extensive identification records along with the animals’ abundance, distribution, behaviour, interaction and group dynamics, the use of our drone has allowed us to gain a much deeper insight into their lives.
“Shark Bait” allows us to approach dolphins from above meaning that we are able to gain a much better view of their behaviour, something which can be difficult to achieve with a low eye level on a boat. With the ability to record and photograph the animals using the drone, we are also able to keep track of individuals and their relationships with each other. This is having a significant impact upon our research and is helping us to learn more about our wonderful local wildlife.
Aerial technology is proving to be a vital step forward in the world of marine conservation. As with anything, there are always issues. Drones, for example, can be difficult to fly in extreme weather, can be easily crashed and in many areas it is compulsory to have a license. However, they also provide a cheaper and less risky option in the world of research. In a watery world threatened by climate change, poaching and so many other important issues any progression in conservation is warmly welcomed. Whether it is discovering more about the species inhabiting the ocean, finding new ways to monitor abundance and populations or monitoring the effects humans have on the environment, technology is paving the way in conservation and we are embracing it.