Friday 22. February 2019

Humpback Whale Research with Drone Technology

The natural environment surrounding UW provides students with a plethora of research opportunities, all they have to do to make it happen is to have vision and determination. Take for example Justin Brown, originally from Michigan, and now a second year master´s student in Coastal and Marine Management at the University Center of the Westfjords. Justin´s research focuses on whales in the Westfjords. His summer was spent working on the whale watching boat Ölver, run by tour company Amazing Westfjords, where he also mapped the occurrence and migration of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Ísafjarðardjúp fjord system. To aid with data collection Justin also obtained a grant from IDEA WILD to purchase a Mavic Air Pro from DJI Technology Co. to photograph the whales.

Research Drone Donated to the University Centre

IDEA WILD is a non-profit organization which fights against the loss of biodiversity worldwide by awarding people in the field with small equipment grants to support their work and research. One stipulation of the grant was that the drone be donated to the UW scientific equipment collection and thus it is now available for use in future projects. Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are becoming an increasingly important tool in aerial photography for a diverse range of applications in scientific research, monitoring of marine mammals, coastal surveying, mapping environmental change, and much more. Drones offer a good solution acquiring high-resolution imagery at comparable low costs and high operational flexibility

Humpback Whales in Ísafjarðardjúp, Iceland

Little is known about the feeding ecology of whales in Icelandic waters and photo identification can suggest the duration of stay in particular areas, show migratory behavior, and also help with abundance estimates. Using his observational data as well as drone images and working in close association with the University of Iceland's Research Center in Húsavík (North-Iceland) as well as the Marine and Freshwater Institute of Iceland (MFRI), Justin identified 34 different individual whales. Justin used his observational data to determine a distribution pattern for the whales, which he was then able to confirm via interviews with local fishermen. Moreover, by inspecting single beam sonar images and interviewing local fishermen, Justin was also able to confirm prey items such as krill and herring when whales were sighted.

With these interdisciplinary methods Justin´s research will provide insight into the general patterns of humpback whale movement in Ísafjarðardjúp as well as into the role that prey items may have in determining whale feeding behavior and distribution in the area. Furthermore, the data obtained in this study may help to determine details of the breeding population the whales and therefore contribute to the worldwide effort to photographically identify humpback whales across long migrations. The increased understanding that this research brings to humpback whale behavior in the Westfjords should also aid regulatory agencies in their future management efforts.

We hope our new drone will spark ideas for future master’s students interested in utilizing similar innovative methods.


Justin Brown hands over the Mavic Air Pro drone to Peter Weiss the director of the University Centre.
Justin Brown hands over the Mavic Air Pro drone to Peter Weiss the director of the University Centre.
1 of 6