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Whale Rescue Aided by Female Drone Pilot Maddy Washburn

Image Credit: Maddy Washburn

There’s no doubt that new technology is helping us protect animals more effectively, and this is especially true for drones. Conservationists are saving time, money, and animals by using drones, which are smaller, easier to maneuver, and produce less noise than traditional methods of aerial monitoring. Drones have also proved themselves to be more accurate than people. As a result, conservationists are using drones more to track animals’ movements, record their population numbers, protect them from poachers, and more.

Recently, beachgoers were able to witness how even an unsuspecting drone pilot could help protect wildlife. On April 20th, a female drone pilot (and Women Who Drone Ambassador) by the name of Maddy Washburn was able to use her drone piloting and photography skills to assist in the rescue of a whale. Through email, Maddy spoke with me and answered a few questions about herself and the rescue.

Image Credit: Maddy Washburn

Originally a hobbyist, Maddy Washburn is a Part 107 certified drone pilot from California who was able to accomplish something wonderful, just in time for Earth Day. While flying her drone at Dana Point Harbor, she spotted a young gray whale caught in gillnet and line. Upon realizing this, Maddy and her team contacted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) rescue team and continued to track the whale until the rescue team arrived.

Maddy started flying drones two years ago after seeing drone photos in her Instagram feed. Living on the coast, Maddy’s favorite places to shoot are at the beach and over oceans. Thus, she drives North and South to different beaches which she says allows her to capture the different vibes of each spot. At Dana Point, She had started the day with the goal of obtaining at least one good shot of a whale. Photographs of whales are especially popular right now and more prevalent since it's migration season. After only about 15-20 minutes on the water, she and her team heard there was a whale in the area.

This situation was her first time capturing a wild animal on film, but she wishes it had been under better circumstances. In spite of the unfortunate situation, her experience is a testament to the value of drones in wildlife research and preservation.

“I've been wanting to capture a whale for over a year now and while it was under incredibly sad circumstances, I'm so glad we were able to help by taking photos so the rescuers could see what his tale was tangled in without having to pull up alongside the whale and cause him for stress!”

Screenshot of Maddy's Instagram Post

When asked if she had ever heard about drones being used in animal rescues or preservation, Maddy had this to say: “I had honestly only read a few articles before this about how drones were being used in places like Africa to help catch poachers with thermal imaging which is amazing! Obviously, this isn't a feasible option here in California, but I would love to find other ways to get involved in animal rescue after experiencing this!”

Maddy recalls that when she first started flying, she would never see other drones. With their popularity rapidly rising, she states that it’s not unusual for her to see another pilot when she’s out flying. With the growing number of drone pilots, it would likely be helpful if more of them were able to contribute to wildlife conservation endeavors.

Even without a drone, there are ways that we, as citizens, can help keep animals and the environment safe and clean. In her interview, Maddy stated that the most important thing she took away from this experience was the importance of keeping our oceans clean and the impact waste, like nets, have on marine life.

“I always try to be as eco-friendly as possible, but seeing the whale swim so slowly and seeing just HOW much rope was wrapped around his tail broke my heart. According to our captain, nearly 1,000 whales and dolphins die EVERY day around the world from being caught in nets so it opened my eyes as to how we need to be so much more aware of what we're throwing away and to never dump in our oceans.”

You can read more about the whale rescue and whale entanglements here.


I am a writer and an artist based in Georgia. Specializing in illustration, graphic design, and video art, I love to explore the new ways technology intersects with art. I think drones have done amazing things for photography and video art, making what would previously be costly and difficult more accessible. As a complete novice, it was only recently that I saw what independent artists could do with their drones, and I continue to be impressed by the sights that drones are able to explore and the images they can capture. Instagram: @tyesha.ferron

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