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Collaborative field research using drones for whale photo-identification studies in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut

Publication: Drone Systems and Applications
15 March 2022


In conducting Arctic field research, hiring local field guides has long been a necessity for providing field teams with local knowledge and fundamental needs of boat operation and navigation, general field logistics/safety, and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of local animal distribution and natural history. As new threats to Arctic wildlife emerge and as field research methods evolve, including local Inuit as long-standing members of research teams has provided additional collaborative benefits through expanded local knowledge, greater efficiency of data collection, and longer temporal sampling which provides the opportunity to study uncommon events. We describe the collaboration between southern-based scientists and local Inuit from the community of Pangnirtung, Nunavut, to conduct field research on marine mammals in Cumberland Sound from 1997 to 2021. Through a keen interest in marine mammal field research, Inuit partners in Pangnirtung have become highly proficient in all aspects of sample and data collection and have received advanced technical training to allow for an expanded role in achieving research objectives. This expanded role includes running field research operations independently, as well as the extensive use of drones to capture photographs of whales for the purposes of photographic-identification and to record behavior. Collaboration with local Inuit also provides benefits through employment opportunities, development of technical skills, and opportunities to actively participate in research that aims to conserve culturally important local wildlife populations.


Dans le cadre de la recherche sur le terrain dans l’Arctique, l’embauche de guides locaux est depuis longtemps une nécessité pour fournir aux équipes sur le terrain les connaissances locales et combler les besoins fondamentaux en matière d’exploitation et de navigation d’embarcations, de logistique et de sécurité générale sur le terrain, et de connaissances écologiques traditionnelles (CET) de la répartition locale des animaux et de l’histoire naturelle. À mesure que de nouvelles menaces pour la faune arctique émergent et que les méthodes de recherche sur le terrain évoluent, inclure des Inuits locaux en tant que membres de longue date des équipes de recherche a procuré des avantages supplémentaires en collaboration grâce à l’élargissement des connaissances locales, à une plus grande efficacité de la collecte de données, et un échantillonnage temporel plus long qui permet d’étudier des événements inhabituels. Les auteurs décrivent la collaboration entre des scientifiques établis plus au sud et des Inuits locaux de la collectivité de Pangnirtung, au Nunavut, pour mener des recherches sur le terrain sur des mammifères marins dans la baie Cumberland de 1997 à 2021. Grâce à un vif intérêt pour la recherche sur le terrain sur les mammifères marins, les partenaires inuits de Pangnirtung sont devenus très compétents dans tous les aspects de la collecte d’échantillons et de données et ont reçu une formation technique avancée qui leur permet de jouer un rôle accru dans l’atteinte des objectifs de recherche. Ce rôle élargi comprend l’exécution indépendante d’opérations de recherche sur le terrain, ainsi que l’utilisation généralisée de drones pour capturer des photos de baleines à des fins de photo-identification et d’enregistrement du comportement. La collaboration avec les Inuits locaux procure également des avantages grâce à des possibilités d’emploi, à l’acquisition de compétences techniques et à la possibilité de participer activement à des recherches visant à conserver des populations fauniques locales importantes sur le plan culturel. [Traduit par la Rédaction]


Field research in the Arctic has long relied upon local communities to provide logistical support as well as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to ensure that field operations are undertaken safely and successfully. For example, local Inuit involvement has provided invaluable contributions to Arctic marine mammal research through an intimate knowledge of animal behavior, habitat use, patterns of movement, as well as a keen understanding of landscapes, waterbodies, local weather patterns, fieldcraft, and threats from local wildlife (including polar bear (Ursus maritimus Phipps, 1774) safety) (Huntington et al. 2011; Breton-Honeyman et al. 2016). In recent decades there has been a call for greater inclusion of Inuit partners in Arctic research as the benefits of a more participatory approach to research are being recognized (Huntington et al. 2011; Provencher et al. 2013; Brunet et al. 2014). However, Brunet et al. (2014) found only a slight shift towards more inclusive methods in Arctic field research from 1965 to 2010. As new threats to Arctic wildlife emerge and field research methods evolve, enhanced collaboration between southern-based scientists and northern research partners will be vital for continued monitoring and effective co-management (e.g., Ostertag et al. 2018; Henri et al. 2020; Peacock et al. 2020). As an example of the key role being played by Inuit in Arctic field research, we describe the collaboration between southern-based scientists and Inuit from the community of Pangnirtung, Nunavut, to conduct field research on bowhead whales and other marine mammals in Cumberland Sound.
Historically, the eastern Canadian Arctic was home to an abundance of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus Linnaeus, 1758) making it an attractive area for commercial whaling operations, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Mitchell and Reeves 1982; Higdon 2008). These commercial whaling activities severely depleted the Eastern Canada-West Greenland (EC-WG) bowhead population (Mitchell and Reeves 1982; Higdon 2008). Although recent estimates of EC-WG bowhead abundance suggest the population continues to recover from the effects of commercial whaling (Doniol-Valcroze et al. 2020; Frasier et al. 2020), new threats may be emerging. With the ultimate goals of management and conservation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) began conducting focused field research on bowhead whales in the eastern Canadian Arctic in the 1990s. Research activities included aerial surveys to assess distribution and abundance (Cosens et al. 1997; Cosens and Innes 2000; Doniol-Valcroze et al. 2020), satellite telemetry to track long-range movements and dive behavior (Dueck et al. 2006; Ferguson et al. 2010; Fortune et al. 2020), and the collection of biopsy samples of skin for dietary analyses (Pomerleau et al. 2012, 2014) and for genetic analysis with the goal of estimating population abundance through genetic capture-recapture analysis (Frasier et al. 2015, 2020).
Efforts to monitor EC-WG bowhead, as well as other Arctic marine mammal populations, have only been possible with support from local communities. Our collaborative work in Cumberland Sound serves as just one example of the many Arctic research programs that are moving towards a more participatory approach to data collection (Henri et al. 2018; Tomaselli et al. 2018; Davis et al. 2021) and also serves as an example of the worldwide emergence of the use of community drones in research and monitoring (Vargas-Ramírez and Paneque-Gálvez 2019). We discuss how our collaboration evolved, highlight the benefits of using this approach to field research, and identify potential challenges for those looking to undertake similar work.


Located on south-eastern Baffin Island, Nunavut, Cumberland Sound (Fig. 1) is an important summering area for bowhead whales (Fortune et al. 2020), and therefore, was an obvious choice as one of the sites for satellite tag deployment and sample collection. The first field operation to collect biopsy samples from bowhead whales in Cumberland Sound occurred in 1997 (Fig. 2). Local guides, field assistants, and boats were hired through the Pangnirtung Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO) to work with researchers from the DFO office in Winnipeg. Local Inuit were essential for efficient field operations because they provided expertise in operating boats, in navigating the waters of Cumberland Sound, and in locating whales for sampling. As guides gained experience, they often became skilled in sampling methods and provided advice on how to expand research to answer questions pertinent to the local community. Ricky Kilabuk (RK) was first hired to work as a guide on bowhead field research in Cumberland Sound in 2012. Within just a few seasons of working as a member of the field team RK became highly proficient in all aspects of sample collection – careful and controlled pursuit and approach of bowheads, remote biopsy sample collection using a crossbow, recording sample metadata, and sample handling. Work on related marine mammal research also led to proficiency in similar tasks, including deployment of satellite tags on killer whales (Orcinus orca (Linnaeus, 1758)).
Fig. 1.
Fig. 1. Cumberland Sound, Nunavut, study area showing the spatial extent and variety of marine mammal photo-identification data and behavioral observations collected using drones during collaborative field research from 2016 to 2021. This map was created in QGIS 3.14 and contains data from the Atlas of Canada Reference Map — Northern Canada/Nord du Canada (MCR 36), used under the Open Government Licence — Canada.
Fig. 2.
Fig. 2. Timeline of key events in the evolution of collaborative field research on bowhead and beluga whales in Cumberland Sound from 1997 to 2021. Years in which field work did not take place are represented by open circles. Bars represent the number of biopsy samples collected, drone photographs taken, and bowhead tags deployed in each field season.
In 2016, the bowhead field research objectives were expanded to include the use of small rotary-winged drones to collect aerial photographs of bowheads for photographic-identification (photo-id) studies. The goal of this work was to use unique markings to identify individual whales in photographs which can then be tracked over time through subsequent resightings. Photo-id studies contribute to our overall understanding of important life history traits, provide measures of body condition, growth rates, calving intervals, and population abundance (Koski et al. 1992, 2010, 2013; Rugh et al. 1992; Schweder et al. 2009). In 2016 and 2017, an experienced commercial pilot was hired to travel to Pangnirtung to conduct the drone operations as part of the field team. In the first year of implementation, in addition to the still imagery for photo-id studies, video footage of a previously poorly documented rock rubbing behavior was also captured (Fig. 3) (Fortune et al. 2017). The early results of the drone work generated considerable interest within the community of Pangnirtung and among members of the Pangnirtung HTO.
Fig. 3.
Fig. 3. A group of bowhead whales engaged in rock rubbing behavior in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut, 20 August 2019. Photo credit: Ricky Kilabuk.
Around the time that photo-id was implemented as one of our research objectives in 2016, drones were becoming increasingly popular to recreational users. RK had recently acquired a drone for his own personal use, quickly became a skilled pilot and, in 2018, took over drone pilot responsibilities for our marine mammal field operations in Cumberland Sound. Although RK possessed extensive practical experience as a recreational pilot, in 2019 additional remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) training was provided to him to further his knowledge and proficiency, and in case of an eventual need to conduct more advanced drone operations.
During each field season, members of the field team met with members of the Pangnirtung HTO to discuss the research objectives and to share preliminary results. Following the implementation of the photo-id portion of the project in 2016, these meetings included the sharing of examples of video and still images obtained from the drone. Discussions were held to obtain additional local and traditional knowledge that would help with the interpretation of results. Questions and input provided by members of the HTO Board have helped to direct research goals as we aim to focus research on issues that are pertinent to the local community. We describe the results of our ongoing collaboration between southern-based scientists and local Inuit from Pangnirtung as a reflection on the realized benefits and lessons learned during this process and we highlight successes in terms of the quantity and variety of samples and data obtained.


During the 2018 and 2019 field seasons, RK was the primary drone operator on our marine mammal field operations in Cumberland Sound during which we collected over 4000 drone photographs for the bowhead and beluga (Delphinapterus leucas (Pallas, 1776)) photo-id projects. RK’s keen understanding of whale behavior allowed him to excel as a drone pilot, just as it had for the other aspects of the project. For example, being able to anticipate when and where a beluga will surface while travelling through murky water allowed for greater photographic opportunities as well as better quality photographs (i.e., from directly overhead while at an appropriate altitude to allow for detailed images of the entire dorsal surface).
Marine mammal field operations in Cumberland Sound in 2020 and 2021 were led by RK and did not include in-field participation by southern-based team members, who instead provided remote support. Having recognized the potential benefits of field work being conducted by local Inuit partners independently, this approach was planned for 2020 following the completion of the 2019 field season and was not related to travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on the variety and quantity of samples and data collected (Fig. 2), 2020 and 2021 were some of our most successful field seasons in recent years. In 2020, the team consisting of RK and his son Eric (EK), collected drone photographs (Figs. 35) of killer whales, bowheads, and belugas; collected biopsy samples from killer whales (n = 24) and bowheads (n = 81); deployed satellite transmitters on killer whales (n = 3); relayed additional killer whale sighting reports with behavioral observations; and located and documented three carcasses from bowheads that had been predated upon by killer whales (Fig. 6). In 2021, RK and EK again collected drone photographs of killer whales, bowheads, and belugas; as well as biopsy samples from killer whales (n = 9) and bowheads (n = 67); deployed one satellite transmitter on a killer whale and one on a beluga whale; reported on the extended presence of killer whales; and provided reports of six bowhead carcasses and two beluga carcasses believed to have been predated upon by killer whales.
Fig. 4.
Fig. 4. Aerial photograph of bowhead whale mother and calf in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut, 13 August 2019. Photo credit: Ricky Kilabuk.
Fig. 5.
Fig. 5. Aerial photograph of beluga whales in Clearwater Fiord, Nunavut, 22 August 2019. Photo credit: Ricky Kilabuk.
Fig. 6.
Fig. 6. The carcass of an approximately 7.5 m long juvenile bowhead whale found in Cumberland Sound, Nunavut on 20 August 2020, following predation by killer whales. Photo credit: Ricky Kilabuk.
Including local Inuit partners as long-standing members of field teams and engaging with them on all aspects of the field work improved project success through (i) greater access to local knowledge, (ii) efficiency of data collection, and (iii) through the ability to take advantage of uncommon events that may occur outside of the field season. Access to local knowledge is achieved as local partners either contribute their own personal knowledge, or seek input from connections within the community. For example, for many years the prime location for biopsy sample collection from bowhead whales in Cumberland Sound has been in and around a specific fiord, Kingnait Fiord. On recent occasions when bowheads have been scarce in this traditional sampling area, communication among local hunters over CB radio identified other areas within Cumberland Sound where bowheads had recently been seen in abundance. This real-time sharing of local knowledge resulted in some of our most successful sampling events and provided a more diverse spatial coverage of habitat used by bowheads.
When members of the field team were permanently based in the study area, efficiency of data collection was improved. Whereas field team members from the south must travel long distances to take part in field activities while on a relatively short field trip, those based in the north had the flexibility to perform field work off and on over the course of several months. By combining hunting and fishing trips with research activities they increased the spatial and temporal coverage of sample collections. Similarly, having local field team members who were committed to the project allowed researchers to take advantage of uncommon events by responding on short notice when an opportunity for data collection presented itself. For example, while the presence of killer whales in Cumberland Sound is not a highly unusual event, specific timing and occurrence is unpredictable. When killer whales were sighted near Pangnirtung in August 2020, local field team members mobilized quickly, located the whales, and collected drone footage and tissue samples even before news of the sighting reached DFO scientists in the south. Inclusion of local Inuit partners as long-term members of field teams also promoted reporting on interesting observations that occurred outside of the regular field seasons such as timing and presence of bowheads along the landfast ice edge in winter/spring, observations of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae (Borowski, 1781)), and the unusual arrival of narwhal (Monodon monoceros Linnaeus, 1758) in recent summers.


Although community support and the hiring of local field guides has long been a necessity in Arctic field research, establishing lasting partnerships and including local participants as essentially permanent members of research teams has proven to come with many benefits beyond the basic needs of boat operation, locating animals, navigation, and safety. For our marine mammal field research program in Cumberland Sound, ongoing collaboration with dedicated individuals from the community of Pangnirtung has led to a mutually beneficial partnership. Our ability to collect data and samples has increased dramatically while encouraging local leadership in research, offering employment opportunities, providing advanced technical training, providing opportunities to contribute as co-authors on scientific publications, and empowering individuals to actively contribute to research projects that aim to conserve culturally important local wildlife populations.
While we have noted many of the benefits of our ongoing collaboration, establishing such a partnership does not come without challenges. One such challenge is that building meaningful relationships and establishing trust among team members takes time. While our collaboration in Cumberland Sound evolved over several years of working together in the field, establishing relationships for collaborative projects launched during the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially challenging. The inability for southern-based team members to meet with prospective collaborators in person and work together in the field has been a major hindrance to our efforts to expand our bowhead research to new areas. Turnover among staff, either from southern based institutions or from HTOs, can also present challenges in terms of establishing relationships and trust. Similarly, maintaining consistency of team members over multiple years can be a challenge. As Inuit field team members may only be hired for the duration of the field work each year, their availability to participate each year may be impacted by other work commitments, family obligations, or by their involvement in subsistence hunting or fishing activities. Finally, scheduling and conducting meetings can be challenging because of overlapping subsistence activities, which can create difficulties in gathering all local participants at one meeting. Added to the difficulty of scheduling meetings, is the unpredictable weather in the north and difficulty arranging transportation due to infrequent flights into some communities.
Our observation that increased community collaboration leads to a greater likelihood of success, while providing additional benefits to Inuit partners, is consistent with experiences reported from other collaborative research programs (Pearce et al. 2009; Huntington et al. 2011; Provencher et al. 2013). Recognition of such benefits has been central in the movement toward greater Inuit involvement in research. However, more must be done to ensure engagement with Inuit communities is meaningful and benefits are long-lasting (Pfeifer 2018; Pedersen et al. 2020). Recent calls for changes, such as the National Inuit Strategy on Research (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami 2018), have highlighted the need for greater Inuit involvement and governance in Arctic research and have identified actions required to achieve this. Such initiatives have brought the topic of Inuit self-determination in research to the forefront and a growing number of organizations, institutions, and researchers are more purposefully moving towards a higher level of community engagement and greater involvement of Inuit in research. While our collaboration in Cumberland Sound evolved over several years, we recognize the importance of Inuit involvement and governance and will strive towards improving on these aspects of our research moving forward and when developing new projects. Future work will include a concerted effort to continue to move towards coproduction of knowledge while encouraging community led research.


We thank the community of Pangnirtung and the Pangnirtung Hunters and Trappers Organization for their continued support for marine mammal field research in Cumberland Sound. We especially thank all of the Pangnirtung boat captains, field guides, and assistants who have contributed to this research over the years, for their ongoing commitment to this project. We thank Thomas Seitz (VDOS Global LLC) who collected aerial imagery from 2015 to 2017. Drone operations in Cumberland Sound were conducted under Special Flight Operation Certificate Number ATS 16-17-00014027 and ATS-18-19-00012577 and as basic operations under current Transport Canada regulations. All research activities were approved by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Freshwater Institute Animal Care Committee and for each year a Fisheries and Oceans Canada license to fish for scientific purposes was obtained. Funding was provided by the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, LGL Limited, and World Wildlife Fund Canada.


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Information & Authors


Published In

cover image Drone Systems and Applications
Drone Systems and Applications
Volume 10Number 1January 2022
Pages: 256 - 265


Received: 23 August 2021
Accepted: 8 March 2022
Accepted manuscript online: 15 March 2022


This article is part of a collection on Unoccupied Vehicle Systems in Arctic Research and Monitoring jointly published by Arctic Science and Drone Systems and Applications.

Key Words

  1. bowhead
  2. beluga
  3. killer whale
  4. Arctic
  5. traditional ecological knowledge


  1. baleine boréale
  2. béluga
  3. épaulard
  4. arctique
  5. connaissances écologiques traditionnelles



Brent G. Young [email protected]
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 501 University Crescent, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N6, Canada.
William R. Koski*
LGL Limited, 22 Fisher St., P.O. Box 280, King City, ON L7B 1A6, Canada.
Ricky Kilabuk
P.O. Box 265, Pangnirtung, NU X0A 0R0, Canada.
Cortney A. Watt
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 501 University Crescent, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N6, Canada.
Department of Biological Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2, Canada.
Kasey P. Ryan
Department of Biological Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2, Canada.
Steven H. Ferguson
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 501 University Crescent, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N6, Canada.
Department of Biological Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2, Canada.


William R. Koski served as an Associate Editor at the time of manuscript review and acceptance; peer review and editorial decisions regarding this manuscript were handled by Amanda Hodgson.
A correction was made to this paper on 9 May 2022. The current online version is now correct.

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