ABSTRACT

Aerial surveys are a powerful means of collecting ecological data in terrestrial and marine systems that may otherwise be difficult to acquire. Increasingly aerial observations are made with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), such as drones. As this technology has improved in reliability and affordability it has replaced the traditional use of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Drones do, however, have limitations; primarily in their limited flight duration, potential to disturb wildlife and concerns over safety. Here we introduce an aerostat, a ground tethered blimp, as a logistically simple and economical alternative to drones and other aircraft. Blimps differ from drones by using helium for lift, thereby conserving battery life. This technology offers the advantage of near-continuous coverage of locations, as well as providing a safe and accessible alternative aerial platform for a range of applications. We demonstrate the viability of blimp-mounted cameras in a notoriously difficult area to conduct research: the high-energy nearshore marine zone. Specifically, we sought to determine the likelihood of encountering marine megafauna using real-time video and whether their presence was correlated with the occurrence of baitfish. Stingrays were observed more often than other species and the occurrence of seals was correlated with the presence of baitfish. The continuous coverage allowed the observation of foraging behaviour in sharks and seals for extended periods. This demonstrates the utility of this novel technique to improve human safety and enhance ecological research.

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