National Geographic Daily News

Jennifer S. Holland

for National Geographic

Published March 5, 2014

Whatever you think of drone technology, this may be one use that we can all agree on.

The captain of a whale-watching boat who's also a filmmaker sent a drone with a camera into the sky to capture a stunning event: thousands of common dolphins in a super- or megapod speeding through the waters off California, destination unknown. His gorgeous video of Delphinus delphis, which includes a mama whale nuzzling its baby, is here.

The View From Above

Captain Dave Anderson, of Captain Dave's Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari in Dana Point, California, regularly revs up his inflatable to go in search of marine mammals to film. When he finds them, he launches his GoPro-equipped, remote-controlled drone—at about 2.8 pounds, it looks like a toy helicopter—to capture moving images you could never see from the boat. (Read "The Drones Come Home" in National Geographic magazine.)

Later he lines up his boat just so and catches the flying vehicle in his hands before it splashes into the sea. So far he's had to dive in after his equipment only once, and he was more worried about losing a day's whale footage than about the drone—or himself. (It was January.)

Supersize Stampede

In a megapod, which can be more than five miles wide, dolphins (sometimes a mix of species) are not just spread across the sea surface but stacked up vertically. So what you see flying through the air in a "stampede"—when the animals "porpoise," or leap out of the water, their fastest form of locomotion—is only a fraction of the whole group.

"Sometimes they come together and start to move gradually, but other times it's like someone fired a gun, and they take off," says Anderson. "Every time I see dolphins stampeding, I am in disbelief. It's so emotional. There are no words to describe it. That's why I film it—so that others can experience it and will care about these beautiful animals."

Food? Sex? Fear?

Scientists aren't certain why dolphins gather in these megapods. Food is a big possibility: There's often an abundance of it in a given area, such as along coasts, and dolphins surely take advantage of that. Sex? Some say a lot of mating goes on during these gatherings—a good opportunity for gene spreading as soon as everyone stops racing.

Denise Herzing, research director of the Wild Dolphin Project, says that when dolphins put on the speed, the focus may be close-by predators (think of a herd of zebra running from a lioness) or some distant buffet. "Dolphin sounds travel far underwater," she says. "So if a pod finds a great school of sardines, they could let their friends five or ten miles away know to come feast." The alerted dolphins then gather more followers as they race over. "I don't think it's just a random case of 'Let's go fast,'" she says. "I think there's a purpose that has to do with survival."

How do they stay in formation? Some of it's visual—keeping an eye on neighbors and following their lead—but sound also plays a role. "Dolphins produce harmonics when they 'whistle' [the sound is actually a product of tissue vibrations], and these harmonics are directional," Herzing says. "So animals in the front can provide information to the guys in back about when to turn, for example. It's called an acoustic beacon."

Moving Pictures

The size of their pods varies quite a bit, but dolphins normally travel in groups of a dozen or so animals. Still, megapods aren't uncommon. And capturing footage of them from above gives dolphinphiles a unique view of what's going on offshore.

Unique views of all kinds of animals are now easier than ever to capture, says Anderson. "I'm just one guy with one drone," he explains. "There are so many like me who haven't been able to afford equipment that can do what this does. But this is actually quite affordable. So imagine, with all that creativity, how much we could see of nature if we all did this together?"

Follow Jennifer Holland on Twitter.

32 comments
Carol Papworth
Carol Papworth

Captain Dave Anderson, of Captain Dave's Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari in Dana Point, Calif., launched a drone with a camera attached into the sky to video thousands of dolphins in a megapod speeding through the waters off California. In the pod, which may have been more than five miles wide, dolphins were spread across the sea surface and stacked up vertically.

Gena Grochowski
Gena Grochowski

I hope the decision makers in the US Navy see this beautiful gathering of dolphins.  I pray that these animals are not stampeding out fear and running away from the sound of underwater testing and explosives. 

Jessica Smith-Thirasawat
Jessica Smith-Thirasawat

Can we just point out that he's actually violating fish and wild life law by driving the dingy with the pod like that. As is the other boat. 100 yards within wild life and you come to an all stop. Just saying. As amazing as the video is, he's not a researcher and doesn't have business endangering the pod's life like that. 

Babi Gobbo
Babi Gobbo

Amazing view! Please, keep doing that.

Tawhid B.
Tawhid B.

they need one  that can go underwater. or do they have those already?

Charlie Cadigan
Charlie Cadigan

This is fabulous!  Finally a great use of drone technology. 

Donald Lyttle
Donald Lyttle

Although impressive and outstanding as the technology is, unfortunately all it will do in the real world is give rapacious fishermen and wildlife poachers a new weapon in their armoury to track and kill wildlife as well as avoiding the authorities try to protect those creatures.

Robert Brinar
Robert Brinar

Drone technology is tremendous, although I have some apprehension just like most when it comes to privacy and security, but for this application the technology is facinating. Watching the dolphins and whales in this video was just hypnotic, they are so amazing as is all of nature, just beautiful. Also interesting seeing Capt. Anderson catching the drone at the end.

Hen Chao
Hen Chao

It is spectacular. Thank you National Geographic.

Winston Ramroop
Winston Ramroop

Simply amazing scenes.. A Wow video moment ! Thanks for sharing this beautiful video of these fantastic sea creatures.

marco barreto
marco barreto

Delfines vistos desde una maquinita, de esas que vuelan como los pájaros del volcán.

Soulus Ocelot
Soulus Ocelot

what a dream!! thank you for capturing and sharing!

Evelyn Pantel
Evelyn Pantel

Where are the 3-D glasses when they are really needed.

John Smith
John Smith

I was fortunate enough to sail through a super pod of dolphins like this one a few years ago off the coast of Baja California.  Amazing.  There were dolphins from horizon to horizon.

Bellz Webster
Bellz Webster

Thanks for sharing that was wonderful to see. Love how God has put life on this planet with these animals.

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

We live in wonderous times!  What a fantastic video of one of the most interesting creatures on planet Earth.  Thank you Nat Geo!!

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