Drone technology keeping a watchful eye on whales this migration season

A new whale monitoring program, that uses drone technology to monitor, track and ID southern right whales off the NSW coast, is delivering spectactular results during this year's whale migration season.

Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), mother and calf

Environment Minister, Matt Kean said the Right Whale ID citizen science project program enables researchers to identify and track NSW's endangered southern right whales.

"We are seeing some truly spectactular images and vision of these precious and endangered animals, only this week we have been tracking two pairs of southern rights in Jervis Bay, south of Sydney," Mr Kean said.

"We can see from their behavior they use our city bays and estuaries as a kind of pre-school where they teach their calves how to breach and feed before heading off to Antartica for the summer."

Unlike humpback whales, south eastern southern right whales do not complete the 'humpback highway' and motor past us to Queensland waters. Instead they prefer to hang out in NSW's coastal bays and beaches to breed and give birth.

Every southern right whale, even the calves, have white hardened skin patches called callosities on their heads that create distinct, individual patterns. Analysis of the photos from the drones is then used to build up a library of images to identify individuals year on year and better understand their movements.

This new pilot program involves National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) sending out a CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) accredited drone operators who are trained to observe the safe legal marine mammal approach distances.

More information on southern right whales can be found at: Southern right whale.

Key facts

  • The Right Whale ID citizen science project will recruit skilled drone operators to take specific images of southern right whales (SRW) in NSW waters, to increase knowledge and understanding about this endangered species.
  • This project will be run as a pilot in 2021.
  • It will be managed by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.
  • The Right Whale ID program is funded under the Marine Estate Management Strategy (MEMS).
  • Images will become available in the coming months at Threatened and protected species
  • This year the project aims to train 20 volunteer drone operators along the NSW coast.
  • These drone operators are members of the public, usually enthusiastic amateurs, some of whom have taken drone vision for NPWS in the past.
  • All drone operators involved in this project are CASA registered and accredited.
  • All operators must undertake training with NPWS Marine Wildlife Officers before joining the volunteer program to ensure they comply with Biodiversity Conservation Regulations (2017).
  • The South-eastern Australian population of SRW is estimated to be less than 300 individuals, with less than 30 mothers expected to give birth in either Victoria or NSW waters this year.
  • Unlike humpback whales, the endangered SRW uses coastal bays and beaches to breed, give birth, mother and rest before heading back to Antarctic waters to feed.
  • This closeness to the shore can make them more vulnerable to disturbance from on-lookers on or in the water.
  • The project will record details about individual SRWs, now endangered in NSW waters.
  • Understanding the patterns of habitual use at different locations along the NSW coast will lead to better management and planning for their benefit.
  • If you see a stranded, entangled, or sick whale, or a sighting of a southern right whale please report it immediately to NPWS on 13000 PARKS or ORRCA Whale and Dolphin Rescue on (02) 9415 3333 (24 hours hotline).