Pro Tips, Trends

How I Got the Shot: Blue Whales Near Antarctica


I’m writing this while on a campaign with the conservation group Sea Shepherd, en route to Antarctica to conduct an annual anti-poaching mission in the Southern Ocean. My role on the ship is to produce video content that will later be cut into a broadcast television show — my new role this year is to also pilot the complement of drones that we have on board. I was thrilled when, just a few days into the campaign, one of the crew members spotted a blue whale mother and her calf near the ship. We ran for the drone and got it up into the air as fast as we could.


Drone Piloting: Not a One-Person Job

Shooting moving objects from a fair distance is a challenge, and there are some specific drone-flying techniques that can come in handy when shooting in situations like this one. Odds are that the subjects you’ll be tracking with your drone will be moving (because these are the most dynamic), and you’ll need to have ideas for shots that will help craft your stories. On this particular day, our mission was to shoot, while maintaining a safe distance, footage of a pair of blue whales. We’d later find out that this was the first-ever aerial footage of a mother blue whale and her calf, and some of the only footage ever of a blue whale calf nursing, which is pretty cool.

Locating a pair of migrating endangered whales from the air is extremely difficult. It’s one thing to be able to spot a subject at a distance, but it’s another to place a camera on it from a moving platform a mile away. I knew going in that I was going to need the help of my spotter to help pinpoint our target. Judging distance and the relative position of two objects to each other at a great distance is pretty hard, and can be a little disorienting. Having someone who can keep an eye on the aircraft at all times can help give you location information and navigate.

Drone Setup on Board the Steve Irwin
Removing the drone from the carry-on case. Photo: Ashleigh Allam

With the help of my spotter, I was able to align the aircraft on the same bearing as the whales and headed off on a flight path that matched their direction. When they next breached, I was able to locate them on my video screen via the spray from their spouts — and from that point on, I flew through the POV of the camera while checking my line-of-sight on the aircraft periodically.

As a rule, I always fly with at least one spotter, as it’s both helpful and an FAA mandate. Once the cetaceans were in visual range, it was just a matter of carrying out a selection of moves that would create the best shots possible while keeping a safe operating distance. Before takeoff, there are a number of things you can do to ensure you’ll get the best shots possible with your unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

Spotter Using Binoculars to Scan the Horizon
Flying with a spotter. Photo: Andrew Cowell

Avoiding Electronic Interference

I find that wherever I fly, with the exception of a remote mountain peak that I once visited, there tends to be enough electronic interference around to deteriorate or cause a complete loss of the remote control and video feed signals from the UAV. Knowing this, I equip some of my transmitters with an external antenna, which not only helps create a more robust signal, but also helps maintain a signal at a further distance than the stock one allows, especially when the aircraft’s antenna is not facing your ground station.

Preparing a drone for takeoff
Hand-launching the Phantom 3. Photo: Andrew Cowell

Of particular concern to me while flying on the open ocean is signal loss; if the auto return-to-home function is triggered after signal loss and I fail to regain control of the UAV, it’s likely it will land itself in the water. Likewise, if I lose the video feed or telemetry mid-flight, returning to the ship could be problematic, as orienting the aircraft at a distance by eye is sometimes difficult, if not impossible — so I switched controllers before takeoff as I knew we’d be operating far away. Another way to help your aircraft is to keep it away from large metal objects. Large pieces of metal can interfere with the UAV’s sensors, especially the compass. To get around this, we always hand-launch and hand-catch our UAVs. If they initialize or land on the metal decks of the ship, they can get incorrect navigational data and fail to operate properly.

Spotter providing guidance for drone pilot
Pointing the directional antenna to the aircraft. Photo: Andrew Cowell

Using Polarizers on Your UAV

It was about midday when we encountered the whales, so going in, I knew the sun was going to wreak havoc with reflections off the water — and bright reflections can ruin images. In this case, I used the polarizer from Polar Pro, which has become a popular accessory for the DJI Phantom. Before takeoff, I installed a polarizing filter over the lens, as polarizers help reduce or eliminate reflections and glare off the water. In this case, I hoped that the polarizer would enable the onboard camera to be able to see the subjects at all. The important thing to remember about using polarizers on UAVs is that you have to orient their angle before takeoff; changing it once you’re in the air is impossible, and a misaligned polarizer can ruin your shot.

Blue Whales viewed from above
Mother blue whale and her calf. Photo: Gavin Garrison

Make the Most of Your Window

We knew that the amount of time we would have eyes on the whales was limited. They had already been in visual range for about ten minutes, and generally these sightings don’t last much longer than that. Knowing that I wouldn’t have much time to cover them, I had a rough outline of the shots I wanted to accomplish in advance. I wanted to make sure the approach was useable, and then to slowly track with the whales without any noticeable movement from the camera or aircraft, so viewers would feel like they were just there, floating along with them. Jarring movements from the camera or aircraft would readily ruin the magic of the experience.

On the final approach to the pair, I began to tilt the camera down so that, by the time the aircraft arrived near the whales, the camera would ease into a downward-facing position and keep them perfectly framed. From there, I re-oriented so the sun was facing the rear of the UAV, and eased into a position that allowed me to track with them as they moved forward. As a happy coincidence, because of the angle of the sun, when the mother whale exhaled before her final dive out of view, her spray caught the light and created a perfect rainbow.

After that moment, both whales dove, and I kept the UAV tracking with their faint outlines as they went deeper into the ocean. One important thing to remember, especially with aerial shots, is to hold your shot for a few beats after you think it’s over. When we reviewed the footage later, we realized that you could actually still see the whales for quite a while, even under the water. It was pretty cool to see them slowly dive out of view; you never know when a few extra seconds after the action might help craft your story.

Blue Whale filmed using a drone
Blue whale spouts a rainbow. Photo: Gavin Garrison

Respect the Environment… And the Law

One of the important things to know when documenting whales or other macrofauna is that you should never — whether you’re in an aircraft or on a boat — approach them from their direction of travel. It’s believed that approaching from the front could interfere with or otherwise affect their movement. Coming from the United States, I’m well-aware of the ever-changing drone regulations. Even in the short time I’ve been out of the country, things have changed dramatically.

In August 2015, two drone pilots made headlines when they were fined $1,000 for flying too close to Orcas in Washington State — the local regulation is to not fly within a minimum distance of 600 feet. The Australian government maintains a 1,650 foot no-fly zone for manned helicopters, though they have not yet introduced any formal regulations for UAVs as of this writing; Australia’s Antarctic Division has an extensive permitting process that’s required for all aircraft, manned or unmanned. And America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) demands that UAVs provide a 1,500 foot right-of-way for our cetacean friends (they require 1,000 feet for manned aircraft). It’s important to be aware of local rules and regulations (however often they may change), but even more important that no matter what the rules are, you prioritize the safety and well-being of both you and your subjects for every mission you fly.

Gavin Garrison recently returned from shooting six months’ worth of drone footage on the high seas in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. He has produced two seasons of the Emmy-nominated reality show Whale Wars, as well as Whale Wars: A Commander Rises (Discovery). Gavin received his master’s degree in film production from the University of Southern California; he is a Samsung Imagelogger and Pond5 Ambassador. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @gavingarrison and check out his new IG @dronefortwo.