Pilot Spotlight: Interview with Catherine Cushenan
Location: Berkshire, England
Tell us about yourself.
I am a British shark ecologist and 50m freediver. I spend as much time as possible in the ocean, and have spent the last 6 years working with sharks, whales, rays, corals, and anything that lives under the sea. When I'm not underwater, I take to the sky. I've been able to combine aerial videography with my work, studying the use of drones in shark movements and behavior.
What inspired you to begin flying drones, and what made you want to enter the industry as a drone pilot?
Using drones to study sharks was an idea that had been brewing in my mind for quite a long time. Quite by chance, a friend of mine mentioned his Ph.D. supervisor was looking to take on a Masters student to research exactly that. I promptly invested in my first drone and learned to fly on an island in the middle of nowhere (the Azores). I fell in love on the very first flight. The oceans, volcanoes, and lush green landscapes of the Azores were the perfect location to become totally addicted to flying. I had racked up over 100 flying hours before my thesis research even started!
What were you doing before you started flying drones, and what made you make the transition? I had been researching the effects of feeding sharks for tourism in the Philippines, the Maldives, and the Azores. It was incredible to be up close and personal with the sharks to study them, but I began to think that maybe an aerial perspective would capture more sharks. I finally tested this theory for my Masters' thesis, comparing underwater and aerial videography in their use of assessing shark ecology in the shallow tropical waters of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Now, I can't live without my flying baby!
What drone(s) are you currently flying, and what drone accessories do you love? I am flying with the DJI Mavic 2 Pro. She is called Zoe, and I love her to death. On my previous drone (Phantom 4 Pro) I had four ND filters, and I think the polarizing lenses were the gadgets I loved the most. I definitely will be getting some for Zoe ASAP!
What is your favorite feature on your drone and why?
Oh, lordy... The Hasselblad camera and the gimbal. Please don't make me choose between the two! I never thought I needed to upgrade from the Phantom 4 Pro, but a friend of mine let me try out her Mavic 2 Pro and I went and bought one the next day. The image is so much crisper, and for videography, the footage is significantly smoother. I wince looking at old footage from the Phantom now!
What drone images are you most proud of and why? While I was working in the Azores, we were studying Mobula Ray migration. We would go to the best dive site in the world (Princess Alice Banks) twice a week, at least, and deploy/replace cameras to record for 72 hours straight.
The BBC came out to film our team, and I had some great shots of the Mobulas from the surface. They ended up using some of the shots in BBC Animals with Cameras (the extended version) and I was so, so, so happy! If you've seen that program — and remember the part where you see one of the pregnant Mobula Ray's babies 'kicking' inside her tummy — that was a Mobula I tagged. That was the first-ever recorded instance of that being captured! The whole research and shooting project is close to my heart as it was one of the first times I felt like a real drone pilot.
Have you learned any valuable lessons from being in the drone industry that you can share with our female drone community? DJI is lovely. It's a positive lesson to learn, but so important. I had a third-hand drone that committed suicide right in the middle of the ocean. I barely had any of the information they needed about purchase records etc., but with just the flight record and a friendly conversation, they replaced the model within three days. I almost didn't bother to ask them because I didn't have insurance and I thought it would cost me thousands, but they're so friendly and understanding!
Whether it's from a creative, commercial, or humanitarian perspective, tell us about the most memorable drone flight you have piloted thus far. My most memorable flight was in the Dominican Republic. I work with Conscious Breath Adventures, a humpback whale swim liveaboard that operates out of the Silver Bank between January and April each year.
We have special permission to fly drones around the whales (no closer than 20m, of course) and observe their behavior. The first flight with a mother and calf was simply magnificent, watching them affectionately nuzzle each other. That was the first time I've ever been truly sad to hear the low battery beep-beep!
We're now in talks to use the drones as 'snot-cams' to actually catch the saliva of a whale blow as it tells us a lot about their diet and migration. Science drones forever!
What would you say to women and girls about the drone industry to spark their interest in getting involved?
Get a drone! It's so much simpler than it looks, and nothing will spark your passion more than taking to the skies and seeing the magic for yourself. Once you start posting, the business side of things will develop itself.
What excites you most about more women joining the drone industry? I just love seeing drone imagery. I can't wait to have an army of female pilots around the world taking photos and sharing them on every country and continent, and using their talent to inspire my next adventures. I absolutely love the idea of going on a little drone-enthusiast holiday with a group of girls ready to explore and fly!
Do you have any drone tips & tricks you can share with our audience?
I'm not sure if this counts as a tip or trick, but sometimes when I'm flying in an empty space and someone appears out of nowhere, there's that grey area of 'Can I fly with them around or will they call the police and yell at me?'
I invite them to have a look! Often, they will get super excited to see your footage. I've gotten several jobs out of someone being absolutely amazing and asking me to shoot their houses/farm or asking to buy my footage. Sharing is caring!
What's the best way for our readers to get in touch with you? I've just launched my new website and I would love for you to take a look: www.catsharks.co.uk
It's full of my drone photography and videography as well as my underwater portfolio, and a blog I'm slowly starting to develop. If you just want to chat, there's also the time-old @catsharks Instagram. If you want advice or a cyber-friend, or to actually meet up and play, reach out! I'd love some new people to gossip about the secrets of the skies with!
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you?
Honestly? I'm a bit of an idiot. Not in a self-deprecating kind of way, but I know when I tell people I'm a drone pilot, they tend to get very intimidated. If you're thinking about investing in a drone and joining the community, it's not too difficult, I promise! We will welcome you with open arms, and you'll pick up the skills and have gorgeous cinematic shots in no time at all.
If I can do it, so can you.
Catherine Cushenan is an English shark ecologist, freediving instructor, PADI divemaster, drone pilot, videographer, and adventure explorer. She has worked across the globe, from Iceland to the Dominican Republic to French Polynesia and everywhere in between. This has included volunteering, marine research, working in eco-tourism, and underwater or aerial videography roles.
She studied Marine Biology at the University of Portsmouth, and carried on to do her Masters in the University of the Algarve. She is an SSI freediving instructor and her CWT record is 50m, with a static breath hold of 05:34. She started officially training in 2019. Before this, she had 5 years of subconscious training, freediving to tag and photo ID sharks, mantas, and whales around the world.