According to a new study that was published in the journal Marine Mammal Science, drones flying at low altitudes are harassing beluga whales that live in the St. Lawrence Estuary in the Canadian province of Quebec.
The research was conducted at the University of Windsor by PhD candidate Jaclyn Aubin and her colleagues. They looked at drone footage of beluga pods from 2018 and 2019 to see why the pods were taking deep dives together and repeatedly splashing their tails.
Drones capture endangered Belugas
Aubin and her team investigated a number of aspects, such as the drone's height, the direction of its approach, its speed, the time of day, and the amount of wind that was there.
They discovered that unexpected dives took place in just 4.3% of all drone flights; however, this percentage climbed to 14.3% when the drones flew at an altitude of less than 23 meters above the water's surface.
This height was in line with the threshold for the level of disruption that a drone could cause to other cetaceans, which include whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
The researchers stated that flying the drones at a higher altitude could help attenuate any detrimental effects of drone flights and could reduce the possibility of belugas being disturbed by the drones.
The research also discovered that larger beluga groups were less likely to be frightened by the drones than smaller beluga groups. This occurrence is ascribed to the “many eyes effect,” in which more animals are on the lookout for disruptions and are more likely to react to them.
The researchers underlined the importance of drone pilots exercising caution and flying their aircraft with care to avoid upsetting the beluga whales in their natural habitat.
In particular, they reportedly suggested piloting the drones at an altitude that was higher than usual when monitoring large groups and exercising an increased degree of caution when making the first approach to a pod.
As a result of the fact that Canada's Species at Risk Act classifies the beluga whales that live in the St. Lawrence Estuary as an endangered species, it is even more vital that any potential disturbances to their natural environment be kept to a minimum.
The findings of the study give researchers and operators of drones with useful insights that may be used in their efforts to study marine mammals while limiting the damage that they have.
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