Drone harassment of marine mammals rising on California coast

Some drones, such as this one, are used for research, but amateur users are getting some drones too close to marine mammals for their comfort — and safety.
Some drones, such as this one, are used for research, but amateur users are getting some drones too close to marine mammals for their comfort — and safety.

They’re all over social media: jaw-droppingly dramatic videos and photographs of marine wildlife and scenery, images captured by cameras mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles or drones.

Some people whose equipment recorded those images, especially when the drones got too close to marine mammals, may have been breaking the law.

Many marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which includes admonitions about harassment of the animals. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary includes four separate zones in which overflights by motorized aircraft aren’t allowed below 1,000 feet above the sea’s surface.

The shoreline from the sanctuary’s southern boundary in Cambria to the Carmel River at Carmel Bay (on the north end of the Big Sur area), is one of those zones.

Sanctuary Superintendent Paul Michel said in a phone interview this month that it’s tough getting the information to drone and quadcopter owners, many of whom are unaware that their vehicles are harassing protected wildlife.

“It’s a huge hill to climb,” Michel said of the educational effort, which includes reaching out to user groups and drone clubs to get their help in spreading the word.

“We’ve seen an explosion of this kind of activity. As the drones got cheaper, more and more people got them.”

Complaints increase dramatically

According to Margaret “P.J.” Webb, chairwoman for the sanctuary’s advisory council and at-large representative for this area, the number of complaints of marine-mammal harassment here have “increased dramatically within the last year,” in part because an increase in near-shore food supplies have drawn in “so much more wildlife, and so many more people who have come to see it.”

Michel said most drone users “are pretty innocent, unaware that they’re doing anything wrong,” and that some scientific researchers are licensed to use their drones over the sanctuary to obtain valuable data.

Michel said drone pilots who video over sanctuary waters and shorelines “obviously are interested in wildlife, and that’s wonderful. It’s a beautiful sanctuary, and we encourage them to get out to see it, enjoy it. And they can video there. Not all drone use is an enforcement issue, not every flight is harassing marine mammals. But there can be a harassment issue if they get too close to marine mammals, such as pinnipeds and otters.”

Often, in a twist of fate, Michel said, “their video recordings are their own damning evidence,” especially when they show up on social media, including some YouTube videos of low-flying drones over the sanctuary shoreline, or commercial videos of sanctuary areas and wildlife, images used to help advertise businesses or properties.

Those postings can trigger enforcement action. But more often, Michel said, the first-offense result is a “polite request to take the videos down” so they don’t encourage others to duplicate the illegal actions.

For more about sanctuary regulations on drones:

Drone regulations

As part of the upcoming update of the sanctuary’s management plan, Michel said, drone regulation may be added, including distance regulations, which could also apply to whale watchers, kayakers and any people approaching wildlife, in person or by drone.

“Right now, it’s a recommended distance, because if you’re too close, you’re changing the wildlife’s behavior.”

He likened the possible distance restrictions to “a speeding ticket. You’re either too close or you’re not.”

Michel stressed that “not every drone operator is a bad actor. Not every drone is a bad drone. … What we need to establish is drone etiquette, like tide pool etiquette.”

The drone effect

Meanwhile, according some recent studies reported in such publications as National Geographic, some wildlife could be suffering the consequences from close-encounter drone flights.

A University of Minnesota study shows that heart rates of American black bears jumped when approached by a drone.

“In one extreme case,” author Jennifer Holland wrote in National Geographic, “the remote-controlled fliers caused a bear’s heart rate to spike from 39 to 162 beats a minute, a whopping 400 percent increase,” according to study leader Mark Ditmer of the University of Minnesota. “That’s well above the heartbeat jump experienced by people riding a double-corkscrew roller coaster.”