Scientists have successfully used drones to capture detailed images of Southern right whales during an expedition to New Zealand's naturally hostile subantarctic islands.
An international team of researchers aboard Otago University's research vessel RV Polaris II last week returned from a month-long voyage to the wild and windy Auckland Islands, 465km south of Stewart Island.
The team sought to gauge the status of right whales, which breed at Port Ross, and gain a deeper insight into how a warming world was affecting one of the most sensitive parts of the globe.
They also sought enough data to make useful comparisons with their counterparts the North Atlantic right whale, which now numbers only in its hundreds, to better understand the stresses on right whales globally.
Along with photographic surveys of the whales from small boats, the expedition used a drone - a small four-rotor helicopter equipped with a high-resolution camera - to document the condition of individual whales.
"We fitted our drone with a tiny laser range-finder to measure altitude with a high degree of precision," said expedition leader and Otago University marine biologist Professor Steve Dawson.
The technology allowed the researchers to measure the size and shape of right whales photographed from above.
"This helps us understand the population at the Auckland Islands, and is crucial for figuring out why some right whale populations, such as ours, are recovering strongly, while others, such as the North Atlantic right whale, are not," he said.
"The pictures were taken while the drone hovered 25 to 35m above the whales and the whales did not seem to react.