Baleen whales are the largest animals ever to live on earth, and many populations
were hunted close to extinction in the 20th century (Clapham et al. 1999). Their
recovery is now a key international conservation goal, and they are important in marine
ecosystems as massive consumers that can promote primary production through
nutrient cycling (Roman et al. 2014). However, although abundance has been
assessed to monitor the recovery of some large whale populations (e.g., Barlow et al.
2011, Laake et al. 2012) many populations are wide-ranging and pelagic, and this
inaccessibility has generally impeded quantitative assessments of recovery (Peel et al.
2015). To augment traditional abundance monitoring, we suggest that photogrammetric
measures of individual growth and body condition can also inform about population
status, enabling assessment of individual health as well as population numbers. Photogrammetry
from manned aircraft has used photographs taken from directly above
whales to estimate individual lengths (Gilpatrick and Perryman 2008) and monitor growth trends (Fearnbach et al. 2011), and shape profiles can be measured to assess
body condition to infer reproductive and nutritional status (e.g., Perryman and Lynn
2002, Miller et al. 2012). Recently, Durban et al. (2015) demonstrated the utility of
an unmanned hexacopter for collecting aerial photogrammetry images of killer
whales (Orcinus orca); this provided a noninvasive, cost-effective, and safe platform
that could be deployed from a boat to obtain vertical images of whales. Here we
describe the use of this small, unmanned aerial system (UAS) to measure length and
condition of blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus), the largest of all whales.