Photogrammetry of blue whales with an unmanned hexacopter Academic Article uri icon


  • 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.

publication date

  • October 2016