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DELWP Victoria to use drones for studying critically endangered whale species

Research drones will be used to capture images of Southern Right Whales along local coastlines, as part of a study conducted by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) in the state of Victoria in Australia into the critically endangered species.

The research, funded by the Victorian Government, is a partnership between DELWP regional staff and DELWP’s Arthur Rylah Institute.

The study will involve drones being flown from land-based locations between Warrnambool and Portland during August and September. It’s expected that the key location for the drone flights will be Warrnambool’s Logans Beach, and that the research work will take two to three days to complete.

Southern Right Whales are critically endangered on the Victorian Threatened Species Advisory List, and their population in Australia’s south-east is estimated to be approximately 250.

Senior Biodiversity Officer Mandy Watson, who is leading the study said, “The images we collect will be used to identify individual whale calves and their mothers. While Logans Beach is a known nursery area for mothers and calves, little is known about what happens to these calves once they leave and migrate to sub-Antarctic feeding grounds in summer.”

“Using photo-identification of calves born this year, we hope to find them again on the Australian coast during future winter breeding seasons. This information will be critical to understanding what factors may be affecting their population growth and distribution.”

The data collected will be added to the South East Australian Southern Right Whale Photo-Identification Catalogue curated by Mandy Watson and will also contribute to an ongoing, long-term study on the distribution of Southern Right Whales across Australia and New Zealand. 

In accordance with the Wildlife (Marine Mammals) Regulations 2009, a research permit is required to lawfully operate a drone closer than 500 metres to a whale. DELWP has been granted a research permit, with strict conditions, which will allow the operation of a drone closer to whales than is normally allowed.

Monitoring of whale behaviour will be undertaken by the researchers at all times during drone flights. If a whale shows any behavioural response to the drones during this work, the drones will be withdrawn to at least 500 metres from the whale.

Dates have not yet been scheduled for the research work, as it is weather dependent.

Featured image: Dr.Haus/ CC BY-SA 3.0

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