WATCH: UBC researchers capture drone video of bowhead whales in Canada’s Arctic

Drone footage tracks movement of the elusive bowhead whales in the wild
Aerial footage capturing the movements of the bowhead whale, the longest-living marine mammal in the world, has been released by UBC researchers. Courtesy: VDOS Global 2016.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have captured some rare images of the longest-living marine mammal in the world.

They followed a group of elusive bowhead whales while they were foraging in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut, next to the Arctic Circle, to learn more about their biology and feeding behaviours.

Bowhead whales are known as “Giants of the Arctic” and are famous for their massive bow-shaped heads. They can live for over 200 years.

With the help from the local community, the team captured rare high-quality images and videos of the whales that will be used to determine population size, age-structure and body condition to monitor population status and health over time.

“Much of what we know about their behaviour has come from boat-based or aerial observations from small planes,” said UBC researcher and zoology PhD candidate Sarah Fortune in a release. “Now, thanks to the availability of drone technology and the clear water in Cumberland Sound, we can observe their underwater behaviour like never before, providing new insights into their feeding and social activities.”

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The technology allowed researchers to observe what the whales were doing in real-time, something that they would not have been able to do using conventional tagging methods and boat-based observations.

The use of the drones also makes for a safer, more affordable option for the researchers, without disturbing the whales in their natural habitat. Researchers say they have learned a lot about the social behavior of bowhead whales, including their tendency to swim in coordinated patterns, constantly touching or rubbing one another, when travelling.

The team was also able to watch the whales’ daily activity patterns and found that they spent the early morning feeding in deep water and then rested, often in large groups, in shallow, coastal waters during the afternoon.

The university says it is the first intensive effort to study bowhead whales with the use of an aerial drone in the Eastern Canadian Arctic.