Charity aims high to monitor dolphins and whales by drone

Sitting on board the Silurian on the waters that surround the Inner Hebrides, a group of charity workers sit side by side with professionals from air traffic management company NATS.

A drone sits alongside them on the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust (HWDT) research vessel as newly trained charity workers begin to guide it into the sky to capture the west coast’s stunning landscape and sea life.

Pods of killer whales and harbour porpoises which bask in the clear waters could be the first in the UK to be monitored by drone by a marine research organisation.

The unlikely partnership between a company responsible for millions of flights and a small group of charity workers from the Isle of Mull may appear strange, but their common goal is to capture the west coast wildlife as safely as possible.

“We run a citizens science project where we monitor whales and dolphins,” explains Alison Lomax, director of HWDT.

“So every year the vessel will survey the Hebrides and volunteers will come and join us on board – one of the NATS employees joined us and basically linked us up with this opportunity to do the drone training.”

The charity, which has been running since 1994 and is based in Tobermory, is considered the leading source of information for the conservation of the Hebrides population of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Yet the chance to monitor and capture stunning footage of the mammals from the skies was too good an opportunity to miss, with two staff members learning to become commercial drone pilots with the support of NATS.

“One of our staff members Pippa Garrard was actually the first woman in Scotland to receive this training and become an accredited drone operator from NATS so we were quite proud of her, the first female commercial drone pilot in Scotland,” says Alison proudly.

William Vine-Brown, a drone training specialist adds: “The work of the Trust is a great example of the positive impact drones can have.

“It’s extremely encouraging to see the proactive approach of the Trust in adopting such new technology and it’s important for us to know that we have given them proper training in how to use the drone safely and responsibly within the relevant legislation and licensing laws.”

HWDT say that they are advocates of responsible wildlife watching and that the training would be helpful in capturing the area’s wildlife whilst learning to be respectful of habitats, adding that the group adhere to a voluntary wildlife watching code which they use to train local tour boat operators.

Now the members of the conservation charity are looking to the skies, learning to first fly the drones on land before taking to the water to master the tricky task of flying the device whilst on the water.

It is thought that HWDT will be ready to fly to even bigger heights with their conservation efforts when the drone project begins early next year, with plans to use the devices for research purposes in the future.

“To begin with we’re planning to use the drone to really showcase the area, it’s such an amazing place to see these animals and such a brilliant habitat for them that we really wanted as many people as possible to see that and a drone is a really nice way of capturing that footage,” Alison says.

“We aim to make small videos to put up on our website and on our social media.

“All throughout the year we see Minke whales, common dolphins, pods of harbour porpoises and getting, I suppose, a different view of these animals is something we’re keen to do – and just showcase really what amazing animals you get on the west coast of Scotland.”