Drone technology gives us the eyes of gods. Could it help us save arctic seals? | Philip Hoare

This week, remarkable images were released of harp seals scattered across a fragmented and rapidly disintegrating ice sheet east of Greenland. With record high temperatures and early melting in the Arctic, great cracks create a deadly mosaic on the sheet, an icy crazy paving on which you can make out dark specks – each one a seal, peering out as if bemused by its fate. In such an inhospitable environment, viewed from such height, the marine mammals resemble alien life forms glimpsed on another planet.

By 2035, it is estimated that the disappearance of Arctic sea ice will mean that around 7.5 million harp seals will lose their home. It is another cruel turn for animals that in the 20th century were extensively hunted for their fur – especially the flawless white pelts of their pups. They depend on the sea ice: it is the arena in which they rest after hunting for food, mate, and give birth. The ice is the centre of their lives.

Now an extraordinary surveying technique pioneered by scientists from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research and Wageningen Marine Research offers a slender hope for the seals’ future. Using satellite technology, superhigh resolution images are being produced in which each pixel measures 30x30cm. This allows for the individual identification of harp seals – despite the fact that the satellite is flying 400 miles over their heads.

By working in conjunction with a large-scale Norwegian aerial and ship-based survey using helicopters, drones and an aeroplane, an accurate count of these enigmatic animals may be possible for the first time. It is a measure of the climate emergency that we humans have to go so far above the Earth to determine the future prospects of the species with whom we share the planet. “The effects of climate change are most notable in the remote and inaccessible polar regions, out of sight for most of us,” Jeroen Hoekendijk of the Royal Netherlands Institute told me. “These new technologies provide a valuable tool to monitor Arctic seal populations and study the effects of the rapidly disappearing sea ice.”

But is it too late? Human technology has ever accelerated, with disregard for its impact on the natural world. It is strange how we sometimes have to see things from far away to realise their fragility or assess their beauty. The space race of the 1960s and 70s – which sometimes seemed like a race to leave an environmentally and nuclear-threatened Earth – had that effect. Courtesy of the Apollo moonshots, we knew what our planet looked like from outer space before we knew what whales looked like underwater. Even now, more humans have set foot on the moon than have reached the deepest part of the world’s oceans. Vastness can still defeat us. “The sea, everywhere the sea,” as the Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière has said, “and no one looking at it.”

A harp seal pup lying on ice.
‘The ice is the centre of their lives.’ A harp seal pup. Photograph: Minden Pictures/Alamy

We have moved a long way from Victorian surveyors prizing themselves on taking aerial photographs of imperial edifices by sending cameras attached to hot air balloons with cable-release shutters – even as hunters were roaming icy wastes killing seals to provide fur collars and coats. In 1880, a young Arthur Conan Doyle, then a medical student, enlisted in an Arctic hunt for seals and whales, but having witnessed its brutality – 800 seals were killed in one day – he quickly came to regret his part in the “murderous harvest”. “Amid all the excitement,” Conan Doyle confessed in his private journal, “one’s sympathies lie with the poor hunted creatures.”

Nor was 20th-century technology good news for marine mammals. In the late 1940s British whaling fleets employed Supermarine Walrus amphibious military reconnaissance biplanes – made by the same Southampton company that produced the Spitfire – to search for pods of whales for hunters to harpoon. Tactlessly, they even named one of the planes Moby Dick. “It is the gunner’s business always to pick the largest animal, which calls for considerable experience,” noted one of the team, eyeing up their target.

The aerial hunters were assisted in their deadly photographic survey by their chief scientist from Cambridge. Now we rely on our ever more stratospheric equipment to make amends, and the modern university of Cambridge’s British Antarctic Survey team are detecting walruses from space with a view to conserve rather than kill them.

It’s a remarkable trajectory. Now drone technology gives us the eyes of gods, in war and peace. It offers us a seemingly immortal, omniscient view, as if the whole of the world were under our control. Our planet seems reduced to a video game. Does it take this image of seals scattered in an almost abstract pattern on fractured ice to make us realise what we may have already lost? Or does this seal census signal a glimmer of hope, as seen through an extraterrestrial lens?

  • Philip Hoare is the author of several books, including Leviathan, The Sea Inside and Albert and the Whale

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