A bizarre, rarely acknowledged paradox exists within the thriving community of whale researchers, whales conservationists, and, really, anybody who simply loves whales: they are the largest living creatures on the planet - yet, being deep-diving and fast-moving animals, they are notoriously difficult to study up-close.
Even when scientists do stumble upon a living, breathing whale, they worry that the noise from the boats they use to approach them stresses their study subjects out. Noise from boat propellers reaches whales and can even impact their hearing, though it's not clear yet just how much. But as the famous saying goes, "A deaf whale is a dead whale." They use their auditory sense to hunt, communicate and detect predators, so anything that might jeopardize a whale's hearing can severely impact its chances of survival.
So what's to be done? How can scientists continue to study whales without risking auditory damage or unnecessary stress?
When researchers sat down to think about this question, the evolution of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) burst onto the conservation scene. It all started back when one whale scientist, Dr. Iain Kerr, strapped a camera to a hydrogen balloon and unleashed it into the sky.(Iain Kerr)