Marine Mammal Research Newsletter



Stunning drone footage of bowhead whale behavior

The bowhead whale is the longest-living marine mammal in the world, yet many answers remain about the biology and feeding behavior of this elusive animal.

Video of bowhead whales swimming in the Canadian Arctic taken by pilot Thomas Seitz (VDOS Global LLC). All research and photography was conducted under permits: Special Flight Operation Certificate File Number 5812-11-682, University of British Columbia Animal Care Amendment A14-0064-A002, Department of Fisheries and Oceans License to Fish for Scientific Purposes S-16/17 1005-NU and Animal Use Protocol FWI-ACC-2016-09.

Bowhead whales swimming in the crystal clear waters of Cumberland Sound, Nunavut.

Recently, a collaborative study with the UBC Marine Mammal Research Unit, the World Wildlife Fund, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, LGL Limited, and VDOS Global undertook what is believed to be the first intensive effort to study bowhead whales with the use of an aerial drone in the Eastern Canadian Arctic.

Using drone technology, the research team captured rare high-quality images and videos of Eastern Canada-West Greenland bowhead whales during their summer feeding period in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut (just a few kilometers shy of the Arctic Circle).

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


Fortune was stationed in Pangnirtung, an Inuit hamlet, where she partnered with local community members who have expertise in guiding, fishing and hunting for this project.

Drone being driven over bow head whales

Pilot Thomas Seitz flys the drone that captured the stunning images of bowhead whales in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut.

The drone provided a safe, affordable method to obtain aerial images and video of the bowhead whales, without disturbing them in their natural habitat. The technology allowed the researchers and community members to observe behaviors in real-time, something that they would not have been able to do using conventional tagging methods and boat-based observations.

It was the social behavior that most fascinated Fortune. “Although it is common to find small groups of whales traveling together, we hadn’t observed how often they swim in coordinated patterns, constantly touching or rubbing one another. 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.”


PhD student Sarah Fortune and her team

PhD student Sarah Fortune (second from left) and part of the research team in Pangnirtung, Nunavut.

“Not only were we able to make important observations about their foraging strategy, we were also able to collect data to help with species conservation,” said Fortune. “The pilot, Thomas Seitz (VDOS Global LLC), took thousands of images of the encountered whales, which will be used by Bill Koski (LGL Limited) to determine population size (using individual markings), age-structure, and body condition. This information will be essential to monitoring population status and health of the whales over time.”


See also Global News story:



Sarah Fortune is a PhD Student at UBC’s Marine Mammal Research Unit.


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