I have flown single-engine planes in a lot of places - Australia, Andes, the Arctic - but flying a photo drone over the St. Lawrence was just as exciting as that – and as demanding.
One thing, right at the top: Flying a drone with a camera is not as easy as the manufacturers say. Yes, it is usually relatively easy to get the thing in the air, and even to land it. The key words there are “usually,” and “relatively.” For instance, it’s relatively easier to fly a drone in calm weather than to land a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier in a storm. And usually on the drone the fancy GPS stuff works.
However, usually is not enough when the drone you’re flying cost a lot of money and you’re flying in places that are in any way less open than a prairie field. All the seemingly magic things about modern drones that make them seem simple are in fact complicated under the surface and can quit at any time. The rule is: they eventually will. Nothing always works, including the GPS signals that bring drones home if you mess up.
Drones, in fact, seem regularly to decide to fly home on their own, fast, like puppies remembering dinner. Home usually means the GPS spot the drone stored when it took off. Thus, when you’re flying from a moving boat and the drone goes home to land, you’ll be lucky to be close enough to see the splash.
When I knew I’d be flying a drone to watch belugas, I bought a tough plastic toy drone that cost $89. I thought I’d learn to fly it quickly and move up to the camera drone. Ha! My first flights were all crashes. I hit walls, trees, patio furniture, children’s toys, and myself. A lot. A small drone stings like a bee. A large drone stings like a snake.
"On the very first flight, the drone immediately took a very stable and perfectly exposed video of my anguished face as it zoomed past on its uncontrolled route into a grove of aspen trees, in which it made many interesting noises and a series of abstract images."
I recharged the little thing at least a hundred times, replaced all four tiny motors, and still found branches. But once I had learned how to fly it around in the basement with only an occasional clatter against the wall, I moved up to the first confident flight in the relatively big camera drone.
On the very first flight, the drone immediately took a very stable and perfectly exposed video of my anguished face as it zoomed past on its uncontrolled route into a grove of aspen trees, in which it made many interesting noises and a series of abstract images.
When the time came to fly over whales, we went through various steps to make sure we were legal with Transport Canada and that we had the right permits to fly in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park. The people in the park were cooperative but understandably cautious. This was new stuff that they knew they were going to have to handle carefully. In response to their trust that we wouldn’t disturb the people or the animals in the park, we were careful not to fly very close to the whales or to park visitors.
It was good we didn’t fly close. I found out soon that the images transmitted from the camera to the controller feel real-time but they’re not. So there were a couple of times when I was descending in which the descent continued quite a while after I saw that the water was getting close. If we had been flying low, there would have been one of those splashes to see.
But all that was preliminary. As I got used to the drone, and started focusing on filming the whales, I began to realize how extraordinarily lucky I was.
Watching cetaceans with a flying camera is one of the great experiences of modern life. There are two wonderful things about the little drone we were flying. First, it didn’t seem to disturb the whales at all. Granted, I was not flying right on top of them, which might have bothered them, but at elevations in which a helicopter would have been a thunderstorm overhead, the drone was a tiny little buzz. The belugas paid no attention. And these are skittish animals. I have seen belugas dash away when someone put a foot in the water near where they were swimming. I have seen a whole herd of belugas dive when a plane flew overhead at almost 1,000 meters above. But there the drone was flying overhead usually between 20 and 40 metres up, and they just continued to live out their regular lives as if no one was watching.
Since the drone’s camera could see into the water as far as 20 metres depending on the water clarity, this was a lot like swimming with them, with two dramatic exceptions. First, when divers are in the water, most whales, and particularly belugas, are curious. So what you film is whales interacting with humans. But when you fly a drone overhead and they don’t notice, you are watching what they normally do. It is a window on natural behaviour. Second, human divers are not as fast as most whales. So once the whales decide to leave, they disappear. With a drone, you just follow. At first it was difficult to predict their movements in order to fly smoothly along with the whales, but once I got the hang of that, I could often follow a group for five or 10 minutes, while the research boat I was sitting in lagged over a hundred meters behind. So what I photographed was real time lives of beluga whales.
"Documentaries that try to film real life as it’s happening are sometimes called “fly on the wall” films. So this was kind of fly in the air views of belugas. And what I saw was deeply endearing. "
Documentaries that try to film real life as it’s happening are sometimes called “fly on the wall” films. So this was kind of fly in the air views of belugas. And what I saw was deeply endearing. Beluga life is all about relationships. While I only once saw them feeding, and then it was so subtle the camera didn’t really get it, all the rest of the time I saw gestures of relationships. Mothers and babies cuddling, touching pectoral fins; babies riding on the backs of their mothers or slipping up underneath to nurse; big groups of males swimming fast in very tight formations, looking like the biker gangs that scientist Robert Michaud joked they resembled. Huge groups circling around and around together, their voices – recorded from the shore as I filmed them – an eager chirp and buzz of communication.
It was a special privilege, worth all the flying anxiety that never left me even as I got better at the flying. The chance to see belugas as they live, and as they link their lives with one another to try to overcome the challenges that afflict them even as some of the same ones afflict us and our families, was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I hope through our film, as you see some of the best moments of what I saw, you will feel as amazed and privileged as I was to have been there watching from the sky.