When marine filmographer Dave Anderson’s drone took a tumble into cold seas, he didn’t think twice about diving in after it. It was a grave risk, mind you, given that he was all alone and miles from shore. But that said, he reckons the footage that the remote-controlled aircraft had captured was well worth the potential danger posed.
We are extremely lucky to have an ocean. So far, Earth is the only planet found to have one, at least in liquid form. And without our vast body of water, none of us would even be here. Not only did the first life evolve within it, but the seas also provide half of the oxygen we need.
With only 5 percent of its expansive waters having been explored, most of the ocean remains unknown. And as Fred Gorell of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told Mashable in an October 2014 interview, “Every time we go off on an expedition, we see something new or something believed to be new.”
In fact, so mysterious are our seas that scientists believe we have only discovered a small minority of the species living beneath the waves. And we still have a lot to learn even about the creatures we have found. Fortunately, though, advances in technology are making this voyage of discovery ever easier.
For instance, many marine biologists use webcams as research tools. The scientists can place these gadgets at strategic spots in the ocean to observe marine life without disturbing the environment being studied. Added to which, the researchers can attach cameras directly to aquatic animals, providing astonishing insights into their lives and environments.
The drone is another modern innovation that ocean researchers put to good use. It has many advantages over conventional planes – not least the fact that it is much cheaper. A drone can also fly in any weather; and because it is smaller and quieter than a plane, it is less likely to disturb sea creatures. What’s more, drones are quicker and can be more easily maneuvered than boats; and of course operators, rather than pilots, can fly them.
Yet scientists aren’t the only people who can capture interesting drone footage. In Dana Point, California, Captain Dave Anderson runs a whale and dolphin watching tour company called Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safaris. On top of that, he is a photographer, marine conservationist, author and expert on ocean wildlife. And he’s a man who uses drones in educational filmmaking.
Indeed, it’s through Anderson’s work with drone technology that in early 2014 he managed to film a stunning “stampede” of dolphins along with some migrating gray and humpback whales. The video proved riveting watching – and so far, users have given it more than 14 and a half million views on YouTube.
In the dramatic footage, thousands of dolphins are seen leaping in and out of the water in behavior known as “porpoising.” “This is the most beautiful and compelling five-minute video I have ever put together,” Anderson wrote in the YouTube clip’s description. “I learned so much about these whales and dolphins from this drone footage that it feels like I have entered a new dimension!”
The common dolphin is certainly a special creature. The fastest marine mammal, it swims at up to nearly 40 miles an hour. And porpoising is believed to be an efficient way for the animals to move, since air offers less resistance than water. The behavior is still being studied, however, and may have other purposes that we don’t know about yet.
Meanwhile, it’s no shock that Anderson’s drone captured footage of dolphins off Dana Point. After all, the NOAA says Southern California’s seas contain more dolphins than anyplace else on the planet. Amazingly, moreover, there can be as many as 10,000 of the animals in a pod – which adds up to 400,000 in that area of the world alone. And not only that, but the waters also host several whale species, including the most blue whales you’ll find anywhere in one place.
So it was that Anderson’s YouTube video also included footage, filmed off San Clemente, of three gray whales. In summer, these animals are found living in the waters off the Arctic, but when it gets colder they swim south – in the most impressive migration for a mammal. At around the time of Anderson’s filming, the animals had, then, likely migrated to Baja California to mate and give birth to their offspring.
Enraptured by these majestic animals, Anderson helped write a book about them in 2013. That non-fiction work, Lily, A Gray Whale’s Odyssey, won eight awards. It tells the story of a whale that Anderson had helped rescue from fishing line entanglement. Every year, you see, almost 1,000 cetaceans become caught in lines and die – a fact that prompted the avid conservationist to start a whale disentanglement group in 2008.
In the YouTube video, the gray whales are followed with footage of a humpback mother, calf and male companion. This section was recorded in Maui. The female is filmed playing with her baby and occasionally nudging it up to the surface. Like gray whales, humpbacks migrate long distances, with North Pacific humpbacks, such as these, swimming between Alaska and Hawaii.
Anderson’s footage was taken during the mating and birthing season. At this time, male humpbacks are belligerent towards one another and defensive of the females and their offspring. So it’s quite normal for a humpback mother and her calves to have a male protector during their stay in Hawaii.
Now unsurprisingly, Anderson is very enthusiastic about the drones that allowed him to take the stunning footage of the whales and dolphins. “This technology, that offers such steady footage from the air for such a low price and is so easy to fly, is new,” he says on YouTube. “This was a $10,000- or $20,000-copter a few years ago, and flying those took a great deal of skill.”
On this occasion, Anderson operated the drones from an inflatable boat. And when one drone he was using fell into the water, he wasn’t willing to lose the incredible footage. So the licensed captain plunged fully clothed into the frigid sea to retrieve it. As he explains on YouTube, “It was a stupid move, but the copter started sinking so fast [that] it was my only hope to get the amazing footage I had just shot.”
However, the filmmaker worries that new regulations may stop him from using his remote-controlled copters. “There is debate in many states right now about making use of these drones illegal,” he says on YouTube. “People are justifiably concerned about invasion of privacy. But it would be a shame to have this new window into a whale’s world taken away.”
Furthermore, Anderson has a warning for amateur drone operators who might be tempted to try and make their own dolphin and whale movies. He reckons such filming should be left to the experts, because anything that interferes with the whales is not only undesirable but illegal. Consequently, Anderson says the NOAA is looking at creating laws to specifically address drone use around whales.
Anderson explains it all clearly in a note attached his YouTube video. The marine conservationist writes, “I am a whale watch captain with nearly 20 years of experience. In Maui we sat watching whales from a distance for hours before they moved closer to us. You can never approach them there closer than 100 yards. The mom and calf, as you can see in the film, were completely undisturbed by the small drone.”