How Drones Are Helping Save the Whales

The freeFLY program is quickly taking off

May 28, 2019
 A dead Gray Whale sits on the beach at Limantour Beach on May 23, 2019 in Point Reyes Station, California. A thirteenth Gray Whale washed up dead on a San Francisco Bay Area beach as scientists try to figure what is killing the whales

Justin Sullivan, Getty

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June marks the start of World Oceans Month. Even as an ecosystem that’s teeming with incredible life and unexplored potential, our oceans are more at risk than even before.

On top of sea levels rising at an alarming rate, ocean life is being threatened by pollution. A viral ban on straws is bringing awareness to the issue, but straws only account for .025% of the 8 million tons of plastic that ends up in the ocean.

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What makes up for the rest of debris floating around? An estimated 46% comes from commercial fishing nets. Whales often get caught in these nets, fishing lines, and buoys.

As the gentle giants lose their lives to plastic consumption and entanglement, technology is helping discover new ways to save them. According to the International Whaling Commission, 300,000 whales and dolphins die every year due to entanglements. “Some slowly starve. Others develop deadly infections at the points where lines cut into their flesh,” Sierra explains of the devastating effects. NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Protected Resources coordinates emergency efforts to try and save the animals. 

As navigating the entanglement of a 40-ton whale is no easy task, the NOAA is enlisting the help of unmanned aerial vehicles. The maneuverable drones have become part of their freeFLY initiative, a training program where volunteers are taught how to use the UAVs to help humpbacks.

“It blows my mind that it’s taken us this long [to figure out how to incorporate drones into the response>,” coordinator Justin Viezbicke says of the technology that’s quickly becoming essential. “It alleviates stress for the whale, and it protects us."

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