Lorenzo Fiori and Ticiana Fetterman, from Auckland University of Technology, found the whales in the Hauraki Gulf. Their research supervisor, Dr. Barbara Bollard Breen, said few people have previously seen this "lunge feeding," and that using drone footage to research the behavior was unheard of.
The video almost didn't happen. Breen said her students were originally looking at the behavior of dolphins in big pods when they spotted the Byrde's whale and adjusted their Hex H20 waterproof drone.
The advent of drones has opened up a world of opportunities. The aerial devices can deliver your Amazon order
, broadcast political messages,
and even transport humans
. Now you can also add wildlife conservation research to the list.
The Bryde whale is a critically endangered species in New Zealand. There are believed to be only 200 left in New Zealand waters, 50 of those in the Hauraki Gulf.
"They have a high risk of being hit by container ships. For us to see not only an adult, but a calf as well, you realize we really have to slow down," Breen says.
The drones fly high above the whales and use a powerful zoom feature, an important factor for Breen who says the major draw of using drones in conservation research is the ability to observe from a safe distance without disturbing the whales.
"When we go in by boat, the boat's presence disturbs the animal. With a drone, we can park off and record without disturbing. We are seeing animals play at depths with things we can't see in the boat," Breen says.
Drones open up new possibilities
The team are currently coming up with ethical guidelines for the use of drones in studying marine animals.
"What we are doing is coming up with safe practices around whales. You fly at a certain height above the whales, particularly with these large whales you don't have to fly lower than 40 meters," Breen says.
In this case, the boat was about a kilometer away (0.6 miles) from the whales -- her students turned off the motor in their boat, sent the drones up at the height they wanted, and then sent them out over the water.
"You're flying around wildlife. You have to do it right," she says.