Drones: Making Wildlife Fun Since 2013

Screen capture from drone video of gray whales off Hawai'i | Photo: Dave Anderson

Drones get a lot of understandable bad press due to their use in combat. But as we mentioned here last year in our reporting on the Desert Kit Fox Project's use of a low-cost drone to study the desert's cutest predators, the little remote-piloted flying machines are being put to happier uses by wildlife lovers.

Two new videos out this week drive that potential home. One, shot off the California and Hawaii coasts, includes some of the most thrilling footage of whales and dolphins I've seen in half a century of whale-hugging. The other, filmed at the recent TEDx conference in Berkeley, suggests a way that drones and similar technology might reinvent environmental protection.

The first will make you gasp. The second will make you think. And I've provided a third video for a little bit of nerdly pleasure.

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Here's the first video, courtesy whale tour operator Captain Dave Anderson showing utterly spectacular views of a stampeding pod of dolphins off Dana Point, Orange County in January, and then following up with mama and baby humpback whales snorgling off Hawaii. If you've got a moderately fast connection I can't recommend the High-Definition version highly enough.

If you're like me, you watched that three times before getting to this sentence.

Meanwhile, back on land, veteran desert tortoise biologist Tim Shields gave a talk at this month's recent TEDx conference in Berkeley in which he described ways he thinks drones and other remotely-piloted vehicles (cars, submersibles) might engage a whole new generation of environmental activists. How? By making a game out of saving the world.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that Shields is my neighbor here in Joshua Tree, and that I heard an early draft of his talk live in January while sitting in his living room. I especially like his solution to the problem of ravens eating juvenile desert tortoises in the west Mojave Desert: scare the birds away with drones equipped, Doctor Evil style, with fricking laser beams:

By the way, as long as we're sharing drone-based videos, I interviewed the Desert Kit Fox Project's Dipika Kadaba by way of Google Hangouts last summer. The interview offered an interesting glimpse of ways working scientists are already using drones in the field, with some cool night-time light show effects along with the science.

Kadaba tells me that her team got some great data from last year's project, and if all goes well I'll be reporting on her conclusions sometime in the next few months.

And now, if you don't mind, I'm going to go watch that dolphin video again.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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