British Columbia

Drone operator fined more than $1,000 for allegedly getting too close to orca pod

An American drone operator and photographer have been slapped with hefty fine for allegedly getting too close to a pod of orcas in Washington state.

Canadian authorities support harsh penalty

A pair of drone operators face a heavy fine for allegedly getting too close to a pod of orcas just east of Vancouver Island. (Brianna Wright/DFO)

An American drone operator and photographer have been slapped with hefty fine for allegedly getting too close to a pod of orcas in Washington state. 

The footage captured in the Haro Strait, just east of Vancouver Island, is incredible but one of the operators is facing a fine of more than $1,000. 

U.S. authorities say the pair's drones were within nine metres of the whales while the regulation requires all vessels should be at least approximately 183 metres back.

It is possibly the first time such a fine has been laid, and the harsh penalty is supported by Canadian officials. 

But Canadian law isn't as specific as that in Washington state and only states how it's illegal to disturb or harm marine mammals. Fisheries and Oceans Canada said it's watching what its counterparts in the U.S. are doing to prevent drone operators from getting close to whales. 

"I think it's great that they are out and able to ticket those that they are disturbing marine mammals," said Paul Cottrell, the Pacific marine mammal coordinator. "There are laws in place to protect the marine mammals. People aren't supposed to disturb or harm them."

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The Be Whale Wise guidelines stipulate all vessels should be at least 100 metres away from the animals.

Impact of drones up for debate

Despite the concerns, drone footage is part of a growing trend given the popularity of whales. Just a few weeks ago, a tourist to Vancouver launched a drone to get a better view of a grey whale and researchers are also increasingly employing drones.

A recent study found that drones stressed out black bears, causing their heart rates to spike as much as 400 per cent, but there's not much research on the impact of drones on whales.   

Andrew Trites, the director of UBC's marine mammal research unit, says whales detect sounds in the water but not what is overhead.

"So it's not clear if they can hear that sort of sound," he said. "They do perceive boat engines in the water but for the most part, drones are producing mostly low pitch sounds. 

Drone use in B.C.

Last week, drones operated by the Vancouver aquarium spotted a young killer whale that appeared to have been injured by a boat propeller and researchers are now monitoring its health.

The aquarium also has been using drones since last year to monitor the well being of B.C.'s northern and endangered southern resident populations for its research on how food stocks are affecting the health of the orcas and their ability to reproduce. 

But it follows strict rules, including getting the right permits from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Transportation Safety Board, using telephoto lenses from a distance and staying high above the animals. 

"These aren't drones you would buy in the store, this is custom built," said Carla Crossman, a marine mammal research biologist with the Vancouver Aquarium. "We have a height we fly at and it's monitored in live time. Everyone on the boat knows exactly how high the drone is and close the boat is."