Every June or July, thousands of humpback whales migrate thousands of miles north from Antarctica to have their young just off the coast of Madagascar. And finally we made it up in time to see them (September is best!) Not only did I want to go out and see them, but it was also one of those videos I had dreamed about capturing ever since I bought my first drone a few years ago. So in the second week of September, we were off. I’d finally get the opportunity.
As we arrived at Ile Sainte Marie and we settled into our hotel room, I worried. We were going to sign up for a whale watching boat trip, but what if they didn’t let me fly the drone from the boat? And if they did, would it even be possible to safely catch it (since the boat would be too unsteady to land, not to mention other passengers). We attended the evening briefing by the volunteer leading the tour, but I didn’t raise the question. I figured I’d just bring it along and hope for the best.
The next morning as I lay awake wondering whether I should get up, my daughter came to our door. “There’s whales just offshore.” She said a bit out of breath. “They said we can kayak out to them.” I peered out of the room just in time to see a whale breaching, maybe 250 meters from the beach. As the others rushed for the kayaks, I grabbed my drone and ran out to set things up.
But this wasn’t looking like it was going to be my day. As the others kayaked out to the whale, I struggled to get the drone, the phone, and the remote to connect. This had never been an issue previously, but if there was a time for things to go wrong….
I heard shouting from the water and continued to fumble with the drone, restarting it several times, and finally running inside to get my ipad to look up troubleshooting tutorials. The groundskeeping staff was raking the beach and watching with interest. “Tsy mandeha” (it won’t go) I said. They seemed disappointed they wouldn’t get to see the whale close-up. Not as disappointed as me!!
I quickly followed the instructions on a YouTube video and after what seemed like forever but was in reality only 4-5 minutes, I managed to launch the drone successfully. The groundskeepers ran over to get a look and helped direct me, pointing to the left. As I homed in on the whales and positioned the drone just above them, I marvelled at the amazing footage I was getting. A mother and its calf had left my kayaker family and was swimming in a wide arc across the bay, no more than 150 meters from the shore. At times, the whales filled the entire screen of my phone (and thus, the drone’s camera) and the calf would repeatedly jump out of the water.
As the flight time approached 9 minutes and the whale began fading in the distance, I brought it back in time to catch the kayakers making their way to shore.
This photo, like the other stills in this post, were taken during the boat ride later in the day. In this shot, I couldn’t believe my luck as I tracked a flock of birds swimming close to the water, and suddenly a whale leaped out of the water just behind them. This was taken with a Nikon F100 film camera.
They quickly dropped the kayaks and rushed over to me, out of breath. “Where was the drone?? Did you film that? The whale swam right at us and we had to paddle for our lives!!” I told them that sadly, I had missed everything, and had neither seen nor filmed them. As I told them what had happened, they were relieved I had managed to get it airborne while the whales were near, even if I hadn’t managed to capture this supposed whale attack. “There was malice in her eyes,” my daughter said, (half) jokingly.
Later that day, we would go out on a boat and see plenty of whales nearby – an amazing experience. Not quite as exciting as having a whale come after you in your kayak, I’m sure. But as it turns out, launching a drone from the boat was a non-starter – there’s no way we’d have been able to retrieve it in those swells.
Fast forward to our return home, and I plugged the drone SD card into my laptop: “File unreadable.” I was dejected. Again, something that has never happened with my DJI Mavic. Murphy was alive and well. I would spend a few days researching the issue, and eventually plunked down 50 bucks for a program that seemed reputable and had a money-back guarantee. I installed it and selected my corrupt video file. After half an hour of churning and asking for other files made with the same camera as a reference, the program announced. “file repaired successfully.”
Not only was the file repaired, when I reviewed the video I had captured, I discovered that I had managed to just capture the tail end of my daughter’s adrenaline-filled mad kayak dash to escape the (as I had been told) angry, malevolent mother whale protecting its young. So that would become my first video editing project, just for fun:
And here is the other video. It’s amazing when you think of all of the new perspectives drones have made available to amateur videographers and photographers.