Marine Mammal Monitoring – Tracking whales with thermal cameras on drones

June 8, 2023 - Defence Stories


A flukeprint seen on a water surface with a thermal camera (left), and that same water surface seen with the naked eye (right).

The Department of National Defence/Canadian Armed Forces (DND / CAF) seeks to mitigate its impact on the marine environment, namely on the marine mammals that inhabit the waters that surround Canada. The Marine Mammal Monitoring (M3) program, led by Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), is helping the Department of National Defence/Canadian Armed Forces (DND / CAF) understand, monitor, reduce and mitigate its impact on the marine environment. 

In a recent trial with Transport Canada, DRDC defence scientist Vivian Issa tested thermal cameras mounted on drones to track whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The objective of the trial was to collect electro-optical and infrared data of whale ‘flukeprints’.

When whales are swimming, they surface briefly to breathe. By bringing water up from deep below and mixing the different layers of water mass, they change the temperature of the water and create a signature wake on the surface. Once the ripples from their movement disappear, this temperature change can be seen like footprints on the water. These signatures, called ‘flukeprints’, are created when a whale lifts its tail fin, or fluke, out of the water - a phenomenon that can be compared to the wake produced by a ship’s propeller. The infrared contrast that the flukeprints create on the sea’s surface can be seen for several minutes. M3 researchers and defence scientists at DRDC Valcartier Research Centre are working on training algorithms to detect the wake of whales. With these programs, evidence of whales can be seen on the surface of the ocean by satellite. 

Knowing where whales are helps the Canadian Armed Forces plan operations and exercises at a safe distance. While active DND/CAF marine operations are important for the defence of Canada, they can have negative impacts on marine mammals. By using a range of imaging systems, underwater acoustics, and numerical modeling to collect data on these whales, the M3 program will lower our risk of harming them while also contributing to long-term environmental data, making sure we achieve a better relationship with marine mammals. 

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